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A Federal appeals court earlier this week revealed that more than 100 professional baseball players tested positive for using steroids back in 2003. But San Francisco Chronicle reporters who put giant slugger Barry Bonds at the heart of the BALCO steroid scandal are themselves facing 18 months in federal prison. The reporters refused to say who leaked the secret grand jury testimony.

NPR's David Folkenflik went to San Francisco and reports and brought back this story about two journalists caught between their professional code and the law.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams joined the sleepy San Francisco Chronicle six years ago when it was bought by the Hearst company. Their reporting on BALCO has given the town a jolt.

Mr. LANCE WILLIAMS (Reporter): When you pop one of those big stories, that's why you go in the newspapers.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Lance Williams. He's tall, lean and calm, with a reputation for extracting documents from black holes during his 15 years as an investigative reporter. Williams covered the Jonestown cult massacres and the California recall that would link the words governor and Schwarzenegger forever.

(Soundbite of newsroom)

FOLKENFLIK: Lately, Williams has been attached at the hip to Mark Fainaru-Wada, whether working the phones in the Chronicle's newsroom or ducking outside to talk about leads.

Mr. MARK FAINARU-WADA (Reporter): One line of possibly evasion.

FOLKENFLIK: Fainaru-Wada is younger and intense. He covered college football, Major League Baseball and the NFL until he started casting about for a big project. Then, three years ago, federal tax agents rated the obscure BALCO Dietary Supplements Clinic about 15 miles south of the city.

The reporter soon learned the clinic funneled steroids to top-flight athletes, including the biggest star in all of baseball.

(Soundbite of baseball game broadcast)

FOLKENFLIK: Giant slugger Barry Bonds crushed the single season homerun record. Fainaru-Wada says readers had a right to know how he did it.

Mr. FAINARU-WADA: You had a fraud being perpetrated in the sporting public. You had athletes as role models sending explicit or subtle message to kids that this was an acceptable form of enhancing one's performance.

FOLKENFLIK: So the reporters were surprised in early 2004 when then-Attorney General John Ashcroft announced indictments for illegal drug distribution. Here's how he described the drug users.

Mr. JOHN ASHCROFT (Former U.S. Attorney General): Elite track and field athletes as well as members of Major League Baseball and the National Football League.

FOLKENFLIK: Not one was identified or charged. Ashcroft simply listed four steroid dealers no one had ever heard of. Lance Williams says the Chronicle's sources wanted the full story told.

Mr. WILLIAMS: And they didn't feel it could be told as long as the government concealed the role of the millionaire athletes who really were the driving force in all of this.

FOLKENFLIK: And the Chronicle named names. In December 2004, the reporters cited sealed grand jury testimony to disclose New York Yankee Jason Giambi and Bonds had actually used the drugs.

Mr. JOSEPH RUSSONIELLO (Former U.S. Attorney): As a prosecutor, former prosecutor, when you see that a story relies on leaked information from the grand jury, your first reaction is, whoops, somebody's going to pay for this.

FOLKENFLIK: Joseph Russoniello is the former U.S. attorney for San Francisco. He says leaking grand jury transcripts can taint innocent people and discourage honest testimony.

Bonds denied under oath knowingly using steroids. His lawyer, Michael Raines, blames investigators for the leaks, and says journalists aren't above the law either. A federal judge ordered an inquiry, and in May the U.S. attorney in Los Angeles subpoenaed the reporters for records and testimony about their sources.

Such subpoenas of journalists are rare. Typically, they involve possible breaches of national security, not the dark secrets of professional sports. Some Chronicle readers think the reporters are wrong.

Vincent Turnipseed is a 42-year-old cable car operator, and he doesn't care if the players are juiced.

Mr. VINCENT TURNIPSEED (Cable Car Operator): I like to see a homeruns. And they were providing it for me, so I didn't nothing of it, you know? That's what they want to do, that's their business.

FOLKENFLIK: The Chronicle reporters' refusal to testify led to civil contempt of court charges. Protections for reporters under state law don't apply in federal court. They're free for now on appeal. In recent court filings, prosecutors suggest the Chronicle's key source was Victor Conte, the flamboyant founder of the BALCO clinic.

Conte's lawyers received grand jury testimony to help prepare his defense. In e-mails Conte dangled it before Fainaru-Wada. The Chronicle and Hearst are standing behind the reporters, while NBC news, the New York Times and NPR have filed supportive legal briefs. Lance Williams says reporters can't do the prosecutor's work.

Mr. WILLIAMS: We're not out there to enforce secrecy regulations imposed by governments or business or anyone. That's their lookout. That's not our game. Our game is to find out as much truth as we can and print it as directly as we can.

FOLKENFLIK: Bonds is still under investigation for perjury. Next season, he'll get $16 million to conquer Hank Aaron's career homerun record in a Giants uniform. Meanwhile, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams are waiting to see whether federal judges will give them relief or prison terms.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

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