'Time' Case Exposes Danger of Anonymous Sources

A decision by Time to surrender the notes of reporter Matthew Cooper may not keep him out of jail. Cooper and New York Times reporter Judith Miller could still be the latest in a long line of journalists punished for refusing to reveal sources.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times are due back in court next week. They are the two reporters who have refused to name their sources in the investigation of the outing of a CIA operative. Yesterday Time Inc. said it would hand over Cooper's notes. If the reporters wind up behind bars, they would be the latest in a long line of journalists who have been punished for refusing to turn over sources. NPR's Laura Sullivan reports.

LAURA SULLIVAN reporting:

In the summer of 1978, New York Times reporter Myron Farber was hot on the story of a New Jersey doctor charged with three suspicious deaths at a local hospital. The doctor was on trial because of new information Farber had uncovered, but it wasn't the doctor who went to jail. It was Farber.

Mr. MYRON FARBER (Journalist): I just believed strongly in the work I was doing.

SULLIVAN: Farber spent 40 days in jail after he refused to turn over his notes and sources to the doctor's lawyer. He said he had promised his source's confidentiality.

Mr. FARBER: I was a working, active, determined, aggressive reporter, and I knew the requirement of entering into a confidential relationship with a source from time to time. I was doing that to gather information to make a better story for the public.

SULLIVAN: Myron Farber wasn't the first journalist to go to jail to protect his sources, but he was the first to gain national attention after a landmark 1972 Supreme Court ruling. That case involved Paul Branzburg, a reporter for the Louisville Courier-Journal. He wrote a series of stories about two drug dealers and, despite numerous subpoenas, refused to reveal who they were. The court ruled that reporters cannot refuse to answer questions about their sources as long as the investigation is reasonable. In the 1980s and '90s, more than a dozen reporters went to jail for refusing to name sources. A Detroit television reporter wouldn't identify gang members he interviewed. A newspaper editor from Red Bluff, California, refused to reveal the sources for a story about a police officer who stole a gun. More recently, there was Jim Taricani.

Mr. JIM TARICANI (Journalist): I've been primarily an investigative journalist for 31 years, and we always try to get our information on the record, whether it's people or documents. But sometimes we can't.

SULLIVAN: That's what happened to him in 2001, when he aired a videotape given to him by a source, after a judge said the tape would not be made public.

Mr. TARICANI: The tape showed the city official at his desk during the middle of the day arranging for a city contract, and it shows the businessman handing the $1,000 to the city official, who takes it and puts it in his desk drawer.

SULLIVAN: The judge ordered Taricani to reveal where he got the tape. After two years of appeals, he was sentenced to six months of house arrest.

Mr. TARICANI: It was probably the worst day in my professional career.

SULLIVAN: But University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone says too many journalists think they're above the law.

Professor GEOFFREY STONE (University of Chicago): For the press itself to defy the rule of law is to undermine the very basis of a free press.

SULLIVAN: Stone says reporters are too dependent on anonymous sources, and too often sources are breaking the law to provide reporters information. Taken together, he says, those practices have put the courts in a difficult position.

Prof. STONE: The problem here is not so much that courts are behaving differently, but reporters are asserting the privilege in circumstances in which it has never really been thought appropriate.

SULLIVAN: This week the Supreme Court agreed. It refused to consider an appeal on the case against Time magazine's Matt Cooper and Judith Miller of The New York Times. Laura Sullivan, NPR News, Washington.

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