Hi 81 / Lo 73
|Volume 70, Issue 64,
Friday, November 19, 2004
Bad news for journalism with contempt conviction
Jim Taricani, a reporter for WJAR-TV in Providence, R.I., thought he was simply doing his job.
A court thought he was simply guilty of criminal contempt on Thursday. He now faces the possibility of spending six months behind bars -- simply because he refuses to reveal the identity of a source who leaked him an FBI videotape of a politician taking a bribe.
By airing the tape, Taricani broke no law, but may have gone against a court order against any leaks of tapes connected to the case, in which former Providence Mayor Vincent "Buddy" Cianci Jr. was convicted of corruption.
In March, U.S. District Court Judge Ernest Torres said the tape was meant to either disrupt the investigation or unfairly tip the scales of justice against the defendant. He then found Taricani in civil contempt, fining him $1,000 a day until he would identify his source.
WJAR covered $85,000 in fines until the judge suspended them, seeking criminal charges.
Whoever leaked the tape was in violation of a court order, and should in some measure be accountable to that, but the journalist was not that person, and should not be punished simply because he may know his or her name.
It's a journalist's basic right to be able to protect sources, and many courts have continually supported this right. But recently, the trend has been to pry open reporters' notebooks and tapes. Reporters should stay away from anonymous sources, and using them necessitates a protracted discussion of ethics. Taricani likely didn't file his report flippantly; a good journalist anticipates the consequences of his or her actions.
It's not good for journalism when reporters can be cornered by courts and threatened with fines and jail time. The Rhode Island court should have respected the right of a reporter to protect his sources. Instead, they may be reinforcing a trend that eats away at the rights and privileges of the press.
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