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Damn proud to be a journalist

From the Summer 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 10. By Jim Taricani

From the Summer 2005 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 10.

By Jim Taricani

Friday Dec. 9, 2004, was the single worst morning in my 31-year career as a broadcast journalist. Beginning at 10 and continuing until early afternoon, I sat at the defendant’s table in U.S. District Court listening to a federal judge and special prosecutor berate me for protecting a confidential source. They chastised me for not cooperating with the special prosecutor, and by the end of the diatribe, I was sentenced to six months home confinement. Judge Ernest Torres made it clear he would have sent me to a federal prison had I not been a heart transplant recipient.

I received the sentence for refusing to name the person who gave me a copy of a videotape, which I aired, made by a cooperating witness for the FBI in connection with a corruption investigation into Providence City Hall.

And despite my source coming forward voluntarily before my sentencing, and despite the fact that the case had been completely adjudicated, I was still sent home to wear an ankle bracelet.

But my conditions for home confinement were not of the Martha Stewart version. I was not allowed to leave my house. No walking in the yard, no attending religious services. I was ordered not to use the Internet, so that was disconnected. I wore an ankle bracelet 24 hours a day, was allowed visitors from 2 to 4 p.m. and from 6 to 8 p.m. I was not allowed to take part in any professional activity, including calling any of my colleagues at WJAR during business hours. My probation officer dropped by unannounced and I was forced to give a urine sample for drug tests once a week for the first three weeks of my confinement. Of course, my wife had to abide by all of these restrictions even though she had nothing to do with the case.

Even though the restrictions and length of sentence were over the top in my opinion, what bothered me most was this: Here I was, a reporter in the United States of America and I was sentenced as if I were a common criminal, for simply airing a tape made by a government law enforcement agency that vividly showed the public what government corruption looked like.

Home confinement is no cakewalk. It’s not a vacation and it’s not a time to kick back and write the great American novel. It is a psychologically trying time, a test of patience between spouses and a test of nerves for a reporter who loves his job and sits wasting away instead of broadcasting stories that would help keep the public informed.

I couldn’t help but think about the judges and Justice Department officials who commented on my sentencing, pontificating about how journalists are not above the law and should not be promising confidentiality. I thought about the hypocrisy of those statements. The next time an FBI agent, or a state or local law enforcement officials wants to leak something to me that will further their cause, maybe I’ll just say no. Maybe all journalists should stop taking statements “on background” from high-ranking officials in the White House or the FBI or the Pentagon seeking to further their respective causes, and simply demand that all those cowards go on the record or peddle their propaganda elsewhere.

I remember thinking, as I scrubbed our kitchen floor with one of those Swiffers, that I certainly never believed and still do not believe that journalists are above the law. I’ve always had a great deal of respect for our judicial system and still do. But our Constitution says the people of this country are entitled to a free press. As journalists, we are the conduits of information that the public needs to know about. I thought a lot about a question the citizens of this country need to ask themselves in light of my case, and especially the cases of Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matt Cooper of Time magazine. Citizens should be asking: “What type of a press do we want in this country?”

If the citizens truly want a free press, then they should tell their congressmen that, like 31 state governments, they should pass a federal shield law.

Sitting in my house, as comfortable as it is, I thought a lot about why I go to work each day, why journalists both print and broadcast go to work each day. I thought about all the stories I’ve broadcast over a long career that helped inform the public. And I thought about all my friends who toil away at newspapers, who write great investigative pieces that often times change laws, right wrongs and keep a close watch on our government, just like our Founding Fathers envisioned when they wrote the Constitution.

But I wish I never had all that time to think about journalism and sources and how to use a Swiffer.

I wish I had spent my home confinement time working in my newsroom, continuing to pursue an investigative story that I had started before a judge took me out of action.

I recently broadcast several stories about a former Rhode Island legislator, who recently pleaded guilty to several charges. My reporting was the basis for one of those charges.

My story was based on two confidential sources. They provided important documents.

But if Judge Torres had his way, there would have been no story.

He has not dampened my enthusiasm for my job. I will continue to promise confidentiality, because I am not a common criminal, I am a journalist in the United States of America, and damn proud of it.

Jim Taricani is an investigative reporter for WJAR-TV, the NBC affiliate in Providence, R.I.