Where Does Freedom Of The Press Meet The Obligations Of The Public In Sports?

By Gregory Moore
Updated: August 18, 2006

BALCO HouseSAN ANTONIO – It has finally happened. The problems of the mainstream, hard hitting news world for journalists has now filtered down to the sports department as a federal judge has ordered two San Francisco Chronicle reporters to divulge their sources on leaked grand jury testimony.

The Chronicle printed the judge’s ruling, in part of which said “The court finds itself bound by the law to subordinate (the reporters’) interests to the interests of the grand jury” in discovering the source of the leaks, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White wrote. “The grand jury is inquiring into matters that involve a legitimate need of law enforcement.” In case you have been out of touch with the latest BALCO story line, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, helped prompt professional baseball to adopt new rules to police steroid use by players by writing a series of reports on the BALCO case as it unfolded and on the implication that San Francisco Giants’ Barry Bonds had possibly lied to a federal grand jury.

As the case stands now, Fainaru-Wada and Williams are now at the center of the very tornado that they had written about for so long.

Fainaru-Wada said after the judge’s ruling, “We’re steadfast and resolute in that we’re going to stand behind the sources.” He and Williams remain hopeful, he said, that “at some point there’s going to be a judge or judges who recognize the public good of the stories … and ultimately we will prevail.” This may seem humorous for some and indignation for others but what these two reporters are facing is real right now. Bucking the federal government on a grand jury summons is serious business.

New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent time in jail after she refused to name her source in a CIA leak case that ultimately led to former CIA agent Valerie Plame’s cover being blown.

Miller’s ordeal began in 2003 and she is now free after a deal was struck by her lawyers. The Times stuck by their reporter and in the Chronicle, the paper said it would do the same.

“We will not comply with the government’s effort, which we believe is not in the best interests of an informed public,” Chronicle’s editor Phil Bronstein said in his paper when the story broke about the ruling.

He continued to say in a Chronicle story found online that 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.”

That’s a strong endorsement for any writer but when you have done some really good work that has led to the public awareness and safety of literally thousands of people, one can understand why these two reporters are getting the kind of backing from their paper and from the parent company, the Hearst Corporation.

But what many are not aware of is that in today’s society, the sports pages might as well read “Metro Section – Part II”. There is as much of a hard hitting news journalism aspect of sports because of so many athletes committing crimes normally found on the Metro pages as there are box scores, features and commentary about outdoor fishing and poker.

Today’s sports reporters have to become investigative reporters of their own genre simply because the stories out there are too unreal to not cover.

But does the U.S. government have the right or audacity to actually want to jail a segment of this country’s structure simply because they may not have been able to have the resources necessary to uncover information that may prove helpful to their case?

When it comes to Fainaru-Wada and Williams, the government is definitely trying to take that stance. And it is difficult to understand why at a state level, reporters are protected under the shield law but the federal government doesn’t want to do the same.

Imagine the kind of near effrontery it may have taken for former Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, along with former FBI deputy director W. Mark Felt to have broken the Watergate scandal that ended then President Richard M. Nixon’s presidency.

If these reporters had to disclose their source and there was a grand jury investigation going on, do you honestly believe that the country would have hard about this story?

Do you think that we would have known of the complicity that went about in trying to hide this from the country?

While the work that these two sports writers have done comes no where near that of national security, it is still no less important to note that this is just another case of where our system of justice is very much flawed in some key areas.

Putting journalists in jail for doing their job is something that we would have expected from countries where true “freedom of the press” does not exist. But the question needs to be asked now.

Despite what many law scholars may say is the right thing to do, legally, does this country truly believe in a freedom of the press or is this just another smoke screen that has been slowly unveiling itself with the evolution of technology and the microwave access to it?

Is the information that this one informant may have told these reporters so important that the government cannot get it for themselves?

And what happens if it is found out that the information that led as the foundation for a very successful book is nothing more than mere transcripts that the government already had in possession?

Can the Chronicle then go after the prosecutors and/or government for overzealous prosecution and willful reckless trampling of the paper’s constitutional right to freedom of the press and/or speech?

What then happens to these two reporters? Are they martyrs of a new generation of journalists who see this as their own version of peaceful “civil rights” demonstrations?

No journalist is ever setting out to break the law and defy any law enforcement agency. In most cases the two entities work congruently and help each other get their jobs done efficiently.

However, it seems that sometimes today’s press is truly more about the welfare of the society and sometimes finds itself needing to buck the system, so to speak. A good press should be allowed to protect the populous in a way that is both beneficial and necessary.

Sometimes that means that reporters must protect sources from the government for the good of the very people the government should be protecting.

I support Fainaru-Wada and Williams 1,000,000,000 percent. And I’ll do so by going out and buying their book at the nearest bookstore this weekend. I might decide to buy two or three for friends.

Sometimes you have to take a stance for the common good and if these two reporters must be locked up in jail to protect a confidential informant who has truly helped this country t a time when steroids was rampant in a sport we all love, then it’s the least I could do in buying a book and helping their cause financially.

Who knows maybe one day I will need the same kind of backing from a writer that doesn’t know me but believes that the work I did not only saved countless lives but made a difference for generations unbeknownst to us at that time.