A game of sources

When does the public’s right to know come before personal persecution? When do you say it’s okay to leave your spouse, your family, and your life behind for the name of journalism?

In San Francisco, two men are facing that choice – the two men who broke the Barry Bonds Grand Jury testimony and drew him out as an admitted steroid user with connections to convicted steroid peddlers: Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, San Francisco Chronicle writers and co-authors of Game of Shadows. They can either reveal their source or go to jail. That’s their choice. Take it or leave it.

What does this mean? It means some hard thinking on both men’s parts. Leave a family behind with no support? Or lose your livelihood – your purpose in life. It also means the government is once again trying to strip away the shield of the First Amendment, allowing a source’s name to be revealed and dooming both writers to a life of lost trust and puff pieces.

After hearing an interview on ESPN today with one of the writers, it struck me how important this issue is. These writers are being asked to give away everything they covet – the strength of journalistic law and the right to protect those who otherwise would never offer up important, critical information. Fainaru-Wada and Williams aren’t just being stubborn; they’re standing up for an entire industry. And from the sounds of every interview, commentary, and opinion from the world of journalism, their industry is standing behind them, complete with a Chronicle lawyer troupe and the backing of their employer.

If the relationship between journalist and source is breeched, everyone suffers. The journalist can no longer be trusted. The newspaper can no longer be respected, after allowing the journalist to roll over on his or her source. The people bringing the news can no longer feel safe giving confidential information out, not only forcing them to use other means to get their story across but also forcing the reading public to be without the truth. The entire structure of modern news crumbles, unable to hold up its end of the informational balance.

Sources cannot be given up under force. What happens to corrupt businesses? What happens to crooked governments? What happens to the questions that cannot be answered without inside knowledge, even when that inside knowledge is harmful to anyone who touches it?

This is not a case of “stolen” property. This is not an illegal act. This is no worse than taking improper wire-tap information into consideration when prosecuting a crime. Simply put, this is a First Amendment act. The right for the public to know far outweighs anything else – there is no one at harm here, just a series of facts that one baseball player has been running from for four years. You cannot take that away – not only is it against the public’s best interests, but it’s against everything the Constitution holds true.

If you want someone to blame, blame the person who leaked the crime. But you’ve got to find them first. In the meantime, there’s a lot to be said about the sanctity of the Grand Jury. Better methods need to be used to ensure stories like this don’t leak, that the safety of someone being grilled by a jury of peers isn’t compromised because of a leak.

That’s not a journalist’s problem, though. Their job is to give us the facts. And if these two men go to jail for protecting their source, while the main culprit – the steroid-toting sports star whose life is out in the open, guilty as charged – goes free, well, then we’ve got a bigger problem with our justice system than I had ever thought before.

One of the men said today that if the Chronicle told them to give up their source, then maybe they should never have been working for the paper in the first place. But the paper wouldn’t do that. They’re on the right side in all of this. Maybe they should be focusing on the real culprit – the one that’s already on trial.

And to those two writers: Good for you.

This was lovingly handwritten on August 16th, 2006