When NBC Station 10 in Providence Rhode Island learned of the attack on their own Jim Taricani, utter shock and profound disappointment ensued.
After all, this was the man who had spent a career investigating mob action. Reporting crime. Fleshing out public corruption.
A man who had seen 12 Associated Press awards, received four Emmy Awards and nine Emmy nominations – who won the Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting.
A man who recovered from a heart transplant and came back to the business, hungry for more.
Jim Taricani devoted his life to the public’s right to know.
However, that all stopped on a November Thursday when a federal judge found Taricani guilty of criminal contempt for refusing to reveal a confidential source he’d used to uncover cash bribes involving Providence officials.
Was there a way to protect Taricani?
Three years ago, under a good-faith agreement from a confidential source, Taricani accepted videotape showing the top aide to former Providence Mayor Vincent Cianci Jr. accepting the bribes in City Hall. The tape served as part of a federal investigation into municipal corruption.
Although the tape was subject to a protective order, it was legal for the NBC station to air it.
Cianci Jr. and his aide were then found guilty of corruption in the summer of 2002 and sent to federal prison. The same tape that NBC 10 played aired in the courtroom at the trial of Cianci and his aide.
As reported by the Associated Press, Taricani was brought to trial in 2004 under the guise, according to the judge, that he had no right under the First Amendment to protect the source, who broke the law by giving Taricani the tape. He was sentenced and is now serving six months of home confinement.
According to Associated Press reports, the judge accused Taricani of believing he was above the law by employing a “confidential” source to break a story.
The News 10 I-Team reporter’s case deals directly with the privileges reporters do, or do not have, under the First Amendment and what some states call shield laws, which were adopted to protect journalists who use confidential sources in their investigations and stories.
A REPORTERS PRIVILEGE?
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” — the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Is that statement enough to protect journalists? With increasing cases of reporters being scrutinized by the judicial system, many say the media need more.
“Shield laws have never been more important,” said Charles Davis, executive director of the Freedom of Information Center in Columbia, Mo.
“I have long felt that shield laws are so important because they allow a venue for those struck by moral conscience to discuss matter of grave importance with the public at large via the press.”
The laws come in various shapes, sizes and with fluctuating specifics in the more than 31 states that utilize them.
“Shield laws are only as good as their language,” said Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law.
“No law will ever cover every situation.”
Rhode Island offers such a law, but the judge in Taricani’s case determined it did not apply because it played out on the federal level and not the state.
“Taricani’s sentencing made no sense to me,” said Bill Ketter, editor of the Eagle Tribune newspapers in New England.
“It was a situation where the issue was over. A crime had been committed, and those people were found guilty and the case was over.
“There was no justice at stake here. It seemed vindictive on the judge’s part.”
State shield laws are subject to judges’ interpretations, meaning journalists are at their mercy.
“Judges are increasingly reluctant to recognize the constitutional rights because they don’t want to be seen as activists or have their decisions reversed on appeal,” said Kirtley.
Because of this and the increasing number of journalists doing time for situations similar to Taricani’s, some members of the media are rallying for a federal shield law.
Davis supports a federal law because without one, he said, the purpose of the press will be compromised.
“Often, confidential sources face very real recrimination if they become vocal and public with their own institutions, as no one in the chain of command in the institution wishes to address the issue, be it incompetence, corruption or inefficiency,” he said.
“Thus, the press is a vital link in the chain in which we find out about the world around us.
“Cutting off confidential sources forces us to rely on official proclamations and propaganda.”
THE FATE OF FEDERAL LAW
U.S. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., introduced in November a federal shield law designed to provide “absolute protection” for the use of confidential sources. According to statements released by Dodd, the legislation would protect against forced disclosure of sources, regardless of the state of confidentiality agreements between the source and the press.
“I can’t imagine such a law passing,” said Kirtley.
“Getting these laws passed and used within the states is very different than getting them through Congress.
“And my prediction is that whatever kind of Shield law would pass it would not be absolute enough to function for what’s needed.”
Kirtley said the skewed media views about the need for a federal Shield law is enough to prove it’s near impossibility to draft.
“We’ve got to have the media in agreeance,” she said.
“And who are we covering here with a federal law?
“Can anyone with a web log be protected? That’s the stumbling block when it comes to defining journalists.”
Currently under most states’ laws, very few media types are protected. Many of the statutes protect only full-time reporters working for a newspaper or broadcast station, leaving out freelance writers, book authors, internet journalists or part-time writers, according to The Reporters Privilege, published by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.
“With the ever changing face of the media and news reporting, there’s no way we could adopt a law that would work for everyone,” said Kirtley.
Kirtley believes the focus should be on discouraging the courts from ever calling on journalists’ information instead of trying to protect them once they have been called on.
“Shield laws can be very effective in deterring lawyers from subpoenaing the press in the first place,” she said.
“The states that have the most effective shield laws are the ones that do that.”
Kirtley gave Louisiana as a good example of a statutory law in use.
“It’s a very complicated process for a lawyer to even subpoena a journalist there and most of them just don’t want to mess with it, so they say, forget it.”
Ketter believes the First Amendments serves enough protection.
“There’s obviously a need for concern with all these cases popping up,” he said.
“But we’d do better to battle on a case-by-case basis.
“I don’t think Shield laws create a solution, and they really have no more affect than the (First Amendment).”
He said that anytime legislation is passed, whether it is in the journalists’ favor or not, the press risks the possibility of losing it.
“The First Amendment is a right that goes back to our founding fathers,” he said.
“It’s better we rely on that and fight for a reporter’s privilege and the public’s right to know.
“What the government gives us, they can also take away just as fast,” he said.
Kelsey VanArsdall is a newspaper reporter and freelance writer in Columbus, IN