Top Journalists and Scholars Debate Press Freedoms at Baruch

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On Tuesday, September 27, 2005, Baruch’s Engelman Hall was the site of the latest battle in the growing conflict over reporters’ privilege. JAILING THE MESSENGER: Leaks, Sources, and Freedom of the Press, was presented by PEN American Center and moderated by Jeff Greenfield, a senior analyst at CNN.

The event brought together five accomplished panelists: Ronald Dworkin, Professor at NYU’s School of Law; Vanessa Leggett, journalist jailed for refusing to reveal confidential material; Anthony Lewis, author and former columnist for The New York Times; Norman Pearlstine, editor-in-chief of TIME magazine; and Helen Zia, journalist and co-author of the Wen Ho Lee biography. 

Much of the discussion focused on New York Times reporter and “jailed-messenger” Judith Miller, who has just been released after 85 days in a federal detention center for refusing to name a source. Moderator Greenfield began by asking: “Should the law protect a reporter if a crime was committed?”

The panelists agreed that journalists should be largely protected from having to reveal their sources, but that protection should not be absolute. “Giving carte blanche to the press to hide sources is to encourage irresponsibility,” said Lewis. However, exactly when a reporter should reveal a source, aside from matters of national security, was unclear: “There is no magic formula,” Pearlstine said. “It’s a gray area,” Zia agreed, but noted that Wen Ho Lee’s “reputation was destroyed” by false information provided by protected sources.

Dworkin later proposed conditions in which the identity of a source should be disclosed: “When it’s needed to protect the rights of private citizens, when it’s needed to police the government itself, and when the act of the confidential communication is itself a crime.”

Illustrating the potential legal complexities involved, Pearlstine remarked: “The libel lawyers say to keep your notes, because you may need them, and the confidential source lawyers say to get rid of your notes, because someone may ask to look at them.”

When asked if there should be shield laws to protect journalists, Leggett said: “I’m ambivalent about a shield law. I don’t think it would help.” She then added: “We don’t speak that language in Texas.”

The most contested issue seemed to be the status of news bloggers. Lewis said granting the large number of bloggers the privileges of journalists would be “a daunting task.” “A line needs to be drawn,” replied Dworkin. “If you can’t draw a line, the privilege is curtailed.” Lewis protested that such a distinction would cause the public to see the press as “snobs.” Leggett said what mattered is whether a person “can demonstrate they intend to disseminate their writing to the public.”

Returning to the topic of Judith Miller, Pearlstine concluded with irony: “The one person who didn’t write anything is in jail.”

 

Thomas Fugalli

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