Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Finally sports writers are treated with respect

Freedom of the press (or press freedom) is the guarantee by a government of free public press for its citizens and their associations, extended to members of news gathering organizations, and their published reporting. It also extends to news gathering, and processes involved in obtaining information for public distribution. In the U.S. this right is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. Not all countries are protected by a bill of rights or the constitution pertaining to Freedom of the Press. Australians have nothing in their constitution nor a bill or rights that suggests anything to do with Freedom of the Press.

Today, the very foundation of the American Constitution has reached out and touched – the Fourth Estate’s version of a ‘toy box’ the sports industry. And when all is said and done, the legal system treated sports reporters as they would any other writer.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White Tuesday ruled that two San Francisco Chronicle reporters must disclose (name their sources) as to who offered, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams sealed grand jury testimony from Barry Bonds and other athletes from their testimony in the Justice Department’s case against BALCO. Many media reports have suggested BALCO founder Victor Conte (the subject of the Grand Jury) may have provided the reporters with the transcripts. Both Fainaru-Wada and Williams have refused to say who gave them the information.

Much of Fainaru-Wada and Williams’ New York Times bestselling book “Game of Shadows” was a direct result of the leaked information. The San Francisco Chronicle offered copies of the transcripts in their 2004 BALCO coverage. Before Tuesday’s ruling, Fainaru-Wada and Williams had been steadfast in refusing to reveal their source(s) may be. The Chronicle has been very supportive of their two reporters.

Phil Bronstein, editor of The Chronicle, said after White's ruling that the newspaper would continue to back the reporters in resisting grand jury subpoenas that seek their testimony.

"We will not comply with the government's effort, which we believe is not in the best interests of an informed public,'' Bronstein said. He said the ruling "does not change our complete commitment to Mark and Lance. We support them fully in maintaining the confidentiality of their sources. We will pursue all judicial avenues available to us."

Eve Burton, general counsel of the Hearst Corp., which owns The Chronicle, told the paper the ruling would be appealed to the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. She believes that White relied on rulings from that court in concluding that journalists have no right to withhold evidence from a grand jury.

"We are deeply disappointed with the court's decision but note that the court acknowledged the important First Amendment interests at stake,'' Burton said. She was referring to White's discussion of the essential role often played by confidential sources in allowing the press to inform the public about the workings of government.

"Judge White clearly felt constrained by the Court of Appeals' decisions and that is where we are headed next," she said. "We believe we will ultimately prevail and that is clearly what is in the public's best interest."

The original series of articles that focused on the leaked grand jury testimony appeared in 2004 and included not only parts of Barry Bonds testimony, but Jason Giambi, sprinter Tim Montgomery and other athletes.

Phil Bronstein, editor of The Chronicle in a statement Tuesday evening made it clear how important Fainaru-Wada and Williams are to the Chronicle.

"We believe they performed a service by creating public awareness of the use of performance-enhancing drugs by some of the best athletes in the world,'' the editor said. "as a result of their work, significant reforms have been instituted from Major League Baseball to high school sports.''

The paper contended in the argument they presented to Judge White that reporters should not be compelled to testify if the public benefit of their work outweighed the harm caused by the leak.

In his ruling, White said, “a court should not engage in a balancing test that would require it to place greater value on the reporting of certain news stories over others.''

There is as always two sides to most stories, this story being no exception to that belief. This isn’t the first time the courts are attempting to force reporters to reveal who their sources are. It happens often in the newsroom, rarely if ever in the sports department. What’s important is that this case of reporters protecting their sources be treated with the same respect similar cases not dealing with athletes using performance-enhancing drugs are treated.

In June 2005, the United States Supreme Court declined to hear appeals from Time magazine's Matthew Cooper and The New York Times' Judith Miller, who have balked at testifying before a grand jury investigating the leak of an undercover CIA agent's identity. Miller stood by her principals and went to jail, Cooper choose to testify. Miller spent 85 days in jail, before revealing her source was Lewis Libby, the vice president's chief of staff.

When Miller finally decided she had spent enough time in jail, Arthur Sulzberger Jr., the Times publisher stood by his reporter -- ''She'd given her pledge of confidentiality,'' said Sulzberger Jr. ''She was prepared to honor that. We were going to support her.''

Whatever Sulzberger Jr. believed that day, shortly after she was released from jail she was no longer employed by The New York Times.

Is jail in the immediate futures of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams – it has to be? The paper is free to do what Miller and Cooper and the New York Times did in their 2005 case, appeal their case to the highest court in the Land – the Supreme Court.

There is, however, no reason to believe the decision the Judges made on June 27, 2005 in the Miller/Cooper case won’t be the same decision they’ll make again.

Sports reporters want to be treated, demand to be treated with the same respect their brethren in the news department are regarded. Fair enough, then its time to play by the same set of rules. Smarter minds then SBN can offer a legal perspective on Judge White’s ruling. At the end of the day, Judge White treated sports reporters just as the court system treats all reporters – and that is very good.

For Sports Business News this is Howard Bloom. Sources cited in this Insider Report: The San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times