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The power of the pen

January 16, 2005|by BOB MAGINNIS

It was sometime in the summer of 1973 and the Watergate scandal was being probed hard by The Washington Post, whose reporters' progress toward the truth was dutifully reported by the nation's wire services to papers across the U.S., including The Herald-Mail.

Not every citizen appreciated that quest, as I found one day while getting a haircut in a downtown Hagerstown barbershop. Talk turned to politics and then to Watergate. The barber offered the opinion that Watergate was a whole lot of nothing and the press should stop wasting everyone's time with it.

"Don't you want to know the truth?" I asked.

The barber stopped cutting my hair, placed his shoe on the footrest of the barber chair and began to bounce it up and down. I sat quietly, though my skull was shaking like a bobblehead doll, while he lectured me, pointing the shears at me for emphasis, on the need to respect our president.

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It was then that I realized that there's a partnership between journalists and readers that has to be strong. Without trust, readers don't believe what they read and worse, don't support reporters' search for the truth.

That's particularly true when the reporting involves confidential sources. The Herald-Mail rarely uses such sources as the basis of stories and our parent company, Schurz Communications of South Bend, Ind., recently tightened guidelines for use of such sources at all of its papers.

But sometimes they're necessary and there have been many times in my 31 years here that I've promised sources that their names wouldn't be revealed if they shared vital information with me.

When they decide to do that, they're trusting me and I'm assuming that no one will try to force me to break my promise. But based on a legislative alert from the Newspaper Association of American (NAA), there are reporters out there who aren't so lucky.

For example, when a reporter from The New York Times and another from Time magazine began exploring the possibility that someone in the Bush administration had leaked the name of CIA operative Valerie Plame to a newspaper columnist, the two were slapped with contempt citations - even though neither had written the column in question.

In another case, a Rhode Island TV reporter was sentenced to six months' of home detention for refusing to reveal who leaked him a copy of an FBI surveillance tape, despite the fact that a defense lawyer in a related case confessed to being the source.

If reporters can be detained for writing about - even looking into - things that displease the government, that's a dangerous state of affairs.

The NAA has a solution to protect both the reporters and the free flow of information. It's a federal "shield law" that would prevent reporters from being forced to reveal their sources - or being jailed if they don't.

John F. Sturm, the NAA's president, is frank about how difficult it will be, although he said he's had discussions with members of both major parties in Congress. They realize, he said, that Congress itself might be denied vital information if reporters could be jailed for not giving up their sources.

Some citizens will be tempted to see this in partisan terms - the Democratic liberal reporters seeking immunity from scrutiny as they probe the doings of the Republican administration. The recent CBS debacle, in which a "60 Minutes Wednesday" report was rushed onto the air based on what turned out to be documents no one could authenticate, won't help, either.

But if the law isn't in place to protect reporters looking into what the current administration is doing, it won't be there when the next Bill Clinton takes office, either.

Elsewhere in this section there is a column by George Will - no Democrat by any stretch - revealing that the Department of Education has spent $1 million on propaganda to boost the No Child Left Behind Act, including a $241,000 payment to a columnist and TV talk-show host to plug the program.

What if the people who tipped off reporters about this waste of money or 50 other questionable expenditures were afraid to provide that tip?

As an American, I want to know what's going on, especially when my tax dollars are involved or when something unethical is being done in my country's name. Whether I choose to say "that's OK" when I find out or get outraged is beside the point. I want to know, and I don't want someone who'd rather I didn't find out jailing the people who are trying to give me that information.

Still not convinced? In the same column, Will revealed the Government Accounting Office had cited the Department of Health and Human Services for spending tax money to produce fake "news" videos to promote the Medicare prescription drug program.

Newspapers don't use your tax dollars to do anything, relying instead on the money our customers and advertisers freely pay for our products and services. All we ask is readers' support of a law that will help us keep the government from throwing those who seek the truth into a jail cell.

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