‘Conscience’ of Reporters Committee served on steering committee for 28 years
From the Winter 2006 issue of The News Media & The Law, page 9.
By Kirsten B. Mitchell
When nearly all was said and done in a New York Times Washington bureau meeting, David E. Rosenbaum often had one more thing to say.
“His voice would ring out, ‘I disagree,'” Times colleague Robin Toner recalled at a Jan. 13 memorial service for the slain journalist. “David loved to disagree and he was almost always right.”
Yet never vain.
“He was not about attitude, agenda or voice,” Times Executive Editor Bill Keller wrote in a statement that Times Washington Bureau Chief Philip Taubman read to a room brimming with friends, family, colleagues and sources.
Rosenbaum, who died Jan. 8 of brain injuries after a mugging in Washington, D.C., brought those traits to the Reporters Committee during 28 years on its steering committee, including two — 1989 and 1998 — as chairman of the executive committee. He was 63 and had just retired from working full time at The Times.
“He was always in the debate. It didn’t matter what it was, he always asked questions,” steering committee member John C. Henry of The Associated Press said in an interview.
Rosenbaum also frequently asked others their thoughts, Henry said.
“He once told me, ‘We come to these meetings twice a year. We have to live the decisions in the abstract. But the director, the staff, these are the people who actually live the decision,'” Henry said.
In the late 1970s, several years before Rosenbaum joined the steering committee, the IRS summoned AT&T to turn over records of long-distance charges to journalists’ telephone numbers, including Rosenbaum’s. The fledgling Reporters Committee sued on behalf of the journalists but the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., ruled in 1978 that government “access to third-party evidence in the course of a good-faith felony investigation in no sense ‘abridges’ plaintiffs’ information-gathering activities.”
The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, and Rosenbaum went on to advocate that the Reporters Committee not join every legal fight facing journalists, and instead choose its battles wisely.
Rosenbaum, more than anyone else on the committee, frequently danced with a topic shied away from by the group.
“He would often bring ethics into the discussion and say, ‘I know, ethics isn’t part of our mission, but . . . ‘ ” Henry said.
Times colleague and fellow committee member Stephen Labaton recalled several newsroom conversations with Rosenbaum who was clearly troubled by the facts surrounding confidential source issues in the Valerie Plame and Wen Ho Lee cases. Rosenbaum thought both involved “shoddy journalism,” Labaton said.
“The thing that’s interesting about David is that in the past few years, he would question in the [steering committee] meetings whether the Reporters Committee should be involved in certain causes even if there was a First Amendment principle if the journalism was bad,” he said.
“He understood the importance of upholding First Amendment principle but he also understood that you could win in the courts and still be tarnished in the profession.”
In a Dec. 22 e-mail to Reporters Committee Executive Director Lucy Dalglish, Rosenbaum suggested that the committee develop a new paradigm in a set of journalist guidelines focused not on changing the law but on “ethical and practical” principles.
A starting point, he urged, could be last year’s concurring opinion from U.S. Court of Appeals Judge David Tatel that reporters Judith Miller and Matt Cooper had no First Amendment privilege from testifying before a grand jury investigating who leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to the press.
Tatel wrote that although it did not apply to the Plame case, the Federal Rules of Evidence should be interpreted to recognize a qualified reporter’s privilege in federal courts, particularly given the near-unanimity among the states on the issue.
Rosenbaum’s provocative e-mail also proposed following the example of the National Rifle Association by broadly advocating a cause but avoiding court tests. “We should also take advantage of the reluctance of prosecutors to compel testimony from reporters when the sources are truly whistle blowers with whom the public would sympathize,” he wrote.
Rosenbaum “didn’t see black and white,” Labaton said. “He saw nuance and was always interested in talking about those issues. .In a way, he was the conscience of the organization.”
Hundreds of people filled a room in the Dirksen Senate Office Building Jan. 13 in Washington, D.C. , to mourn Rosenbaum’s murder and celebrate his life as a journalist, father, brother, friend and colleague. The Senate Judiciary Committee recessed its confirmation hearing on then-Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito so its members — among them Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) — could pay their respects to Rosenbaum’s family. Also attending was Judge Tatel.