Support James Risen

PencilPaperThe Supreme Court on Monday turned down an appeal from James Risen, a reporter for The New York Times facing jail for refusing to identify a confidential source.


The case arose from a subpoena to Mr. Risen seeking information about his source for a chapter of his 2006 book, “State of War.” Prosecutors say they need Mr. Risen’s testimony to prove that the source was Jeffrey Sterling, a former C.I.A. official.

To his credit Risen has refused to verify this information and has said he will continue his fight.

Those who are in Risen’s corner say the Obama Justice Department is to blame and Obama himself is also to blame for pressuring Risen. Some have said this is indicative of the new authoritarian regime in Washington while others are eager to paint Risen as some kind of traitor for not coming forward.

Some have questioned why reporters want or need to keep information confidential from government prosecutors, going so far as to say, “Hey, would you want the government during World War II to give up the plans for the D-Day invasion?”

Putting aside the ludicrous and complete non-sequitur nature of that inflammatory comment, the real issue boils down to transparency and government accountability.

The government is accountable to the public. Reporters are not necessarily accountable to the government for the information they gather, they can held to be accountable for misinformation, libel and other things.

It is also ludicrous to place all of the blame on the Obama administration’s Justice Department for the government’s current stance.

It hasn’t changed in the last quarter of a century.

Risen’s stance is very similar to a case from 1989. While it involved local government, the essence of the cases is very similar.

A local Texas reporter had a confidential source in a murder case involving a police officer who was gunned down midway through his overnight shift. Both the prosecution and the defense wanted the confidential source because they wanted to prove a member of local government provided the information which allowed the reporter to interview an incarcerated suspect behind bars.

This case went to the Supreme Court and the reporter was jailed four times defending his right to keep the information confidential.

Finally Justice William Brennan agreed to take the case before the Supreme Court after the Fifth Circuit in New Orleans ruled against the reporter.

By a  5-4 margin the court wouldn’t even hear the appeal as the reporter sat in jail.

In essence the reporter was told he could sit in jail forever until he decided to come forward.

Only after the protected source moved away from the environment in which she was threatened did she come forward and the reporter was released.

At no point did anyone in government, the prosecution or even the defense attorney mention or support the reporter’s first amendment rights. One judge went so far as to say those rights didn’t exist.

Nothing has changed in the last quarter century as government prosecutors push harder and harder to use the work of independent reporters and compromise their objectivity in an attempt to gather information.

This is all very funny from where I sit because prosecutors have the power of subpoena. Reporters do not.

Yet prosecutors always seem to lean on us to do their job.

It is funny and frightening.

Those who cannot defend a reporter’s right to protect a source also suffer under the delusion that we have access to reams of dark information and are eager to publish it come Hell or high water.

Just the opposite is true. We struggle very hard to obtain the information we do get and some of us are very good at getting information that remains vital to a healthy Republic.

But we are also citizens of the Republic and we’ve been known to work with government when matters of national security are paramount.

While we are painted as the loose cannons on deck destroying lives and running roughshod over the founding principles of the Republic for the sake of ratings and readers, in fact it is the opposite that is true. It is the members of government who are running roughshod over The Constitution as they seek to keep the public from the dark secrets which threaten the vitality of the country.

Ultimately, if Risen and the rest of us be unsuccessful in procuring necessary facts to give the public real in-depth reporting, then we all will suffer.

Those who scream about reporters being irresponsible are usually the first to complain of the shallow nature of today’s reporting. We are told we report on Justin Bieber and the Kardashians and other ridiculous personalities far too much while sacrificing real reporting.

No real reporting will ever take place unless people like James Risen are supported and nurtured.

It would have been great if that had happened in Texas 25 years ago too.

But it didn’t happen. And I will never forget the lesson I learned while sitting in jail: The First Amendment is an illusion.

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