Slate’s Jack Shafer tries to unravel “The BALCO mess or travels in the gray areas of confidential source arrangement,” and writes of the San Francisco Chronicle reporters whose source for grand-jury minutes turned out to be a defense attorney:
Having found their leaker, the feds dropped the subpoena against the reporters. But a number of journalists, lawyers, and ethicists in the First Amendment Industrial Complex weren’t happy to learn that Williams and Fainaru-Ward weren’t the free-speech martyrs they imagined them to be.
First, a disclosure: I’m on the board of the California First Amendment Coalition, which has taken a stance defending the reporters. I was never entirely comfortable with this, but the federal government’s efforts were beyond heavy-handed. On balance, I agreed that the threat to journalism was substantial.
Now that we know who the leaker is — and that this soon-to-be-jailed lawyer publicly said the case against his clients should be dropped because the leaks had poisoned the jury pool — the Chronicle’s actions look a whole lot less noble. The paper is getting hammered by readers and critics, and I agree with some of the critics.
The newspaper not only got in bed with someone it knew to have an agenda readers would have found highly relevant — totally undisclosed, of course, by the paper — but it stayed silent when that person used the media to lie through his teeth. There’s no moral ambiguity; what the Chronicle did, by omission, was wrong.
There should be plenty of soul-searching going on inside the Chronicle right now. Sadly, if this story in Editor & Publisher is any indication, nothing of the kind seems to be happening.