Editor’s note: WJAR-TV said on Dec. 21 that Jim Taricani had decided not to appeal the sentence imposed by U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres. The station said Taricani based his decision on concern for his health and a desire to put the matter behind him.
PROVIDENCE, R.I. The time had come to sentence television reporter Jim Taricani for refusing to identify a source.
After a five-hour hearing yesterday, U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres peered out at the courtroom, packed with national and local reporters, then rapped the news media for its coverage of the case and journalists for thinking they have “exclusive, unreviewable authority” to use confidential sources.
Torres called it the “Five Myths.”
“The issues in this case have been obscured and distorted by a number of myths created by spin and media hype,” the judge admonished.
Torres accused the news media of distorting the federal probe as a means to chill reporters’ use of confidential sources and an erroneous assault on the First Amendment rights of a free press.
He chided Taricani and his employer, WJAR-TV, for airing the tape showing bribe-taking at Providence City Hall as a calculated ploy to gain maximum exposure during the viewer-heavy “sweeps week.”
It was “too coincidental” that the tape was played during that time, than when Taricani obtained it months before, the judge said.
More troubling, Torres said, was his view that journalists believe they can decide if a source should be confidential, no matter what a court says.
“What they’re really claiming is a reporter has the right to unilaterally decide what those circumstances (of granting confidentiality) are,” the judge said.
“They claim to be sole arbiters of this,” he added.
Free-press advocacy group, Reporters Without Borders, took issue with the judge’s view.
“The U.S. courts must understand that if the confidentiality of journalists’ sources is not guaranteed, no one will go to them with sensitive information,” the group said in a statement.
Taricani was sentenced yesterday to six months of home confinement, less than a month after being convicted of criminal contempt for refusing to tell the court that a criminal defense attorney, Joseph Bevilacqua Jr., had leaked him the videotape, part of a federal investigation into municipal corruption.
Under the conditions of home confinement, which began yesterday evening, Taricani may leave the house only for medical care, may not do any reporting or media appearances, may not access the Internet, and may have visitors only during certain hours.
In his sentencing, Torres said Taricani knew his source was breaking a court order not to release any evidence connected to the wide-ranging corruption case that ultimately sent former Mayor Vincent “Buddy” Cianci Jr. to prison.
Torres was adamant that the First Amendment did not protect Taricani from punishment. The judge said Taricani’s refusal to name Bevilacqua was a criminal act.
The First Amendment, Torres said, is meant to protect the news media from censorship, not journalists who break the law by withholding a source’s identity requested by the court.
“It’s crystal clear Mr. Taricani had no privilege under the First Amendment or any other circumstances to refuse to disclose the identity of a confidential source,” the judge said.
Steven Minicucci, a Providence attorney and the former president of the Rhode Island Trial Lawyers Association, agreed with the judge’s interpretation. “My feeling is that and I think when the judge looked at it ... it really turned not so much on the First Amendment issue that everybody was really kind of getting excited about, but this really turned on a court order and violation of a court order,” he said.
Here are the “Five Myths” that U.S. District Judge Ernest Torres accused the news media of spreading:
- Myth #1: The premise of confidentiality is what allowed Taricani to uncover corruption that otherwise wouldn’t have been made public, or been subject to punishment.
Torres’ interpretation: Taricani, and his source, didn’t “uncover” corruption. They made public a videotape that had been made by the FBI.
- Myth #2: Requiring a source to be disclosed would chill reporters’ use of confidential sources.
Torres’ interpretation: Taricani committed a crime because he knew the source was breaking the law when he gave him the tape. He should have complied with the court’s order forbidding evidence be made public.
- Myth #3: Taricani was punished for doing his job.
Torres’ interpretation: Taricani gathered the news by illegal means.
- Myth #4: Reporter has right to decide if source should be confidential.
Torres’ interpretation: Reporters should not have such “exclusive, unreviewable authority.” Their actions should be subject to court review.
- Myth #5: The court’s order was an assault on the First Amendment’s rights to a free press.
Torres’ interpretation: First Amendment protects the press from censorship; it does not shield a journalist who protects a source who knowingly broke the law.