SYRACUSE, N.Y. It is essential that Congress pass a federal shield law for reporters protecting their sources, a First Amendment attorney said last week in a speech to journalists gathered to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Syracuse University's Newhouse School of Public Communications.
"The public, not the press, will be the real losers" if confidential sources are exposed, Bruce Sanford said on Oct. 21. "The public will not receive information about what is really going on in government without reporters' being able to have confidential communications with those in power."
Sanford said current times are ominous for journalists _ and the public who have watched a recent evaporation of 30 years of well-recognized law conferring a constitutional privilege upon reporters to protect their sources of information.
New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine have been held in contempt by a federal judge and face possible jail time for refusing to reveal their sources to investigators probing the leak of CIA officer Valerie Plame's identity, Sanford said. They are appealing the ruling.
The government has succeeded "at making conversations with reporters a potential criminal activity," said Sanford, a partner with Baker and Hostetler, a national law firm whose media clients include ABC, The New York Times and Fox Television.
Sanford said 31 states and the District of Columbia already provided journalists with shield protections.
A federal shield law "is not special-interest legislation for the press. It is the public who needs to know what is really going on in government, and it is the public who will be impoverished if reporters cannot protect the confidentiality of their private communications with people who want to share information and insight about what is really transpiring in the corridors of government," Sanford said.
He also said it was time for journalists to "talk to the public in new ways about their professional values and about their commitment to truth-telling."
Public confidence in major news organizations has been seriously eroded by recent lapses in judgment at CBS News and by the resignation of top editors at two national newspapers, The New York Times and USA TODAY, over fraudulent reporting.
"The public suspects that the news business is more about money than a dedication to truth-telling," Sanford said.
The commemoration included a series of panels featuring a Who's Who of journalism: David Carey, publisher of The New Yorker magazine; "60 Minutes" Executive Producer Don Hewitt, and Steve Kroft, the program's co-editor; Amanda Bennett, executive vice president and editor of The Philadelphia Inquirer; Al Neuharth, former chairman and CEO of Gannett and founder of the Freedom Forum; and Tony Vincquerra, president and CEO of Fox Networks Group.
The panels explored the nature of mass communication and how it has evolved since Aug. 5, 1964, the day President Lyndon B. Johnson cut the ribbon to open the I.M. Pei-designed Newhouse building.