Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams won’t be going to jail after all. Waiter, a bottle of your best! In case the two (or would it be three?) names elude you, they are reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle who were threatened with jail time if they didn’t reveal the names of their confidential informants. There’s a lot of that going around. We have seen the Scooter Libby case involving journalists and their confidential sources. Currently The New York Times is fighting an effort by the Justice Department to seize the phone records of two reporters who broke a big story about government spying on private citizens. There was the instance of Vanessa Leggett, an aspiring writer who was investigating a Houston murder case in order to write a book about it. She refused to hand over her notes to the FBI and she spent a record (then) 168 days in a federal prison. During that time there were three journalists in prison in the Western hemisphere for doing their jobs. Two were in Cuba. The third was in Houston, Texas. Another case close to home involved the dragging death of a black man by three white idiots in Jasper. One defendant gave an interview to 60 Minutes, but not all the tape was used. The judge in the case ordered the producer to hand over the unused tape. She refused and was threatened with jail. CBS finally relented. The case involving the two reporters for the San Francisco Chronicle mentioned above did not deal with national security, the CIA or Osama bin Laden. It dealt with whether Barry Bonds used steroids. Fortunately, the source for the stories stepped forward, rendering the prison threat moot. These are all federal cases, with the Justice Department going after journalists right and left. Until a few years ago, the First Amendment was enough to protect the media. No more. And, in each situation, our tax dollars are paying for the prosecution while private media companies are covering their legal costs. In the case of the San Francisco Chronicle, it ran to more than a million dollars for the newspaper. The nation needs a shield law, and there is a bill before Congress to create one. We won’t get it, but we sure could use it. A shield law allows journalists to protect their confidential sources, and, until recently, that’s what it did in the 27 states which have such laws. The Bush administration, however, has shown scant regard for journalists, their sources or protecting personal rights, so we have seen a rash of reporters being threatened with prison if they don’t reveal their whistle-blowers, and in some cases actually going to the clink. On the state level, each state that has such protection for journalists has its own version. The Texas Legislature has never adopted a shield law although several times it has considered doing so. Sometimes the effort was torpedoed because of a dispute between the state’s broadcasters and print media. They couldn’t agree on the proposal. In 1993, a concentrated effort was made and all parties agreed to the bill, but it soon became so watered down and toothless that the media dropped its support and the bill died. Most lawmakers on all levels, as well as the general public, currently have such disdain for the media that passing any bill to help the ink-stained wretches do their job would be a long shot, at best. It was not always this way. During the days of the Republic of Texas, at the inauguration ceremonies for the president, among the dignitaries walking in procession to the podium were the editors of Texas newspapers. Why do we need such a law? So that journalists can find out what’s going on and tell us. What lawmaker is taking bribes? What CEO is ripping off his company? Who is saying catty things about Britney Spears? Inquiring minds want to know. Ah, but why should journalists be given special treatment by being protected? The same reason doctors, lawyers and religious leaders are shielded from revealing personal secrets they have learned during the course of their position and work. Come to think of it, that’s the same protection you and your spouse have in your dealings with each other. You don’t have to tell it to the judge. You are protected. Forcing journalists to reveal information simply makes reporters an arm of the government, and who can trust our government? Besides, we pay and empower people to get the facts. Deputy: “Sheriff, aren’t you gonna track down that getaway driver?” Sheriff: “Nah, I’ll just wait till that guy from the Daily Duh finds him, then subpoena his notes.” It’s a lazy way to do the job. First CIA agent: “Don’t we need to parachute into Pakistan and interview Omar the Bomber?” Second CIA agent: “Why bother when CNN is doing it? Then we’ll get a judge and take the film.” Lazy? Don’t laugh. While the FBI was investigating what books Monica Lewinski bought in Georgetown stores, and was harassing Vanessa Leggett in Houston to get her interview notes, Al-Queda was plotting to slam airliners into the World Trade Center, and the feds had not a clue. It’s all a matter of priorities, but it’s not close enough even for government work. Finally, we must consider this observation by one of the major players of the 20th Century. “Why should freedom of speech and freedom of the press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns. Why should any man be allowed to buy a printing press and disseminate pernicious opinion calculated to embarrass the government?” – Nicolai Vladmir Lenin. Ashby is unshielded at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.