Columns » Bob McCord

Shield reporters

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Like me, I suspect most people are now more bored than angry about the big story about the president’s indispensable aide, Karl Rove. He has admitted that he is the guy who told a couple of journalists that a fellow who debunked Bush’s idea that Iraq was developing nuclear weapons was married to a Central Intelligence Agency operative. Of course, it is illegal to identify anyone who works covertly with the CIA. Rove at first denied talking to the reporters, but now he has admitted that he had told them that the woman was in the CIA, but didn’t tell them her name. Whether he told them or not, the reporters say they already knew that Valerie Wilson, the CIA operative, was married to the man who investigated and said Saddam had no atomic bombs, which Bush used to scare us into war. Democrats who hate Bush are insisting that the President fire Rove. That would be a terrible blow to the administration, since Rove has made George W. Bush, starting back in Texas politics. It’s hard to believe that Democrats (and newspaper editorials) can force a Republican president to fire his most valuable aide. However, the New York Times says it has happened at least twice. President Eisenhower’s chief of staff, Sherman Adams, had to quit because he accepted a vicuna fur coat from a business friend who wanted government favors, and President Carter’s aide, Bert Lance, was fired when it became known that he had mismanaged a bank he used to own. I don’t really care whether Rove stays or quits. We have President Bush for the next three-and-a-half years, and I don’t think the nation is going to get any better until another president is in the White House. What bothers me about this turmoil is that Judith Miller, a reporter from the New York Times, has been hauled into jail because she refuses to tell who told her about the CIA wife. To jail her is absolutely ridiculous since she never even wrote a story about this fatuous affair. The first journalist who wrote the CIA operative’s name was Robert Novak, a columnist pal of the Bush administration, yet no punishment for him has even been talked about. Matthew Cooper, a Time magazine reporter who did write about it, was headed for jail with Miller when he and his bosses changed their minds and decided that he would talk to the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, and the grand jury and turn over all of his notes. Fitzgerald is so anxious to put reporters in jail that I suspect he has his eyes on a seat on the Supreme Court. Naturally, as a newspaperman all my life, I cringe when anyone tries to force journalists to name their confidential sources. We would never find out any crookedness or blunders by our politicians, governments or big business if people who know about it — usually colleagues or employees — had to worry that their names would be made public if they talked to the press. Despite the fact that our Constitution guarantees freedom of the press, the promise collapses when lawyers and judges drag journalists into court and make them reveal their sources. Most journalists, like Miller, are willing to go to jail rather than break their vow. Last year nearly a dozen reporters were threatened with jail sentences for refusing to reveal confidential sources.The Supreme Court has struggled with this many times, but so far it has never come up with a satisfactory shield. Congress is now trying to act. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., introduced a media shield law near the end of last year’s session, and he says he will re-introduce it now. Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind., and Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., have already introduced a similar bill, so maybe something will be done this year. Thirty-one states already have passed laws to keep reporters from being subpoenaed to reveal their confidential sources, but these laws are good only in state courts. I’m proud to say that the Arkansas legislature passed one of the first laws in the country in the form of an initiative act that the citizens voted for in1937. In 1947, the Arkansas law was strengthened by state Sen. J. Pat Garner of Fort Smith, who improved the law and made it also protect radio reporters. Garner worked for KFPW, Fort Smith’s oldest station. His initiated act was passed by the voters 121,310 yes, 29,174 no. That tells me that Arkansans don’t want their journalists to be forced to disclose a confidential source when they give them the news they need to know.

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