WASHINGTON – In a historic gathering Monday night, nine members of the press jailed for “committing the First Amendment” called for a national Shield Law and told the stories that led to their imprisonment.
The panelists, who had never before gathered all in one place, ranged from Pulitzer Prize winner Judith Miller to blogger Josh Wolf, imprisoned for more than seven months, and author Vanessa Leggett, jailed for 168 days. Also on the panel and serving as host of the symposium was Brian Karem, executive editor of the Sentinel Newspapers, who went to jail in 1990 for protecting a confidential source.
The complete list of candidates included: Judith Miller, Vanessa Leggett, Libby Averyt, Josh Wolf, Lisa Abraham, Brad Stone, Roxana Kopetman, Brian Karem and Schuyler Kropf. The panel was sponsored by The National Press Club Journalism Institute, The Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press, The First Amendment Coalition, Expose Facts.Org, The Maryland Delaware District of Columbia Press Association, the Institute for Public Accuracy, Western Journalism Center, U.S. Justice Foundation and The Free Speech Coalition.
During the first night of International Whistleblowers Week, the journalists called for federal protections for journalists who do not give up confidential sources or notes as well as more solidarity in the media.
“If we can’t coalesce around this issue than what are we doing? I know it’s not like us to be advocates, but the national shield law is a political issue. We need to employ political tactics to get this done. It may be the right thing to do, but it’s going to require a political effort which is something we don’t like to do but if we can’t do it for this, then i don’t know what happens as we go forward,” said Linda Foley, a retired president of the Newspaper Guild, in response to the panelists’ stories.
Libby Averyt, now publisher of the Corpus Christi Caller-Times, first told her story when she was a 26-year-old courts reporter who had interviewed a defendant in a capital murder trial. The court subpoenaed her and the defense attorney asked what else the defendant told her that she had not put in the story and she refused to answer.
“That was tantamount to me handing over my notes and becoming an arm of the law, which I was not willing to do,” Averyt said.
She was jailed on a Friday evening and released on Sunday evening because of national media attention on the condition that she remained under subpoena. Averyt said the defendant later got up on the stand, against his attorney’s advice, and said everything in the article was true, which meant she was no longer needed to testify. But even those few days in jail affected her for much longer.
“It was the longest three days of my life. I was strip searched which I wouldn’t talk about, frankly, for a year. I was so embarrassed by it. And the food stinks, it just does. Everything you’ve heard about it is true. You can’t get any sleep. It made me question, like (moderator) Brian (Karem) said, whether I wanted to be a journalist or not. It took me a good 18 months or so after that to decide this is what I really wanted to do,” Averyt said. “I’m very grateful that I stayed in this profession, but that’s a hell of a price to pay.”
Although others on the panel had better experiences with the food, all said it was not a pleasant reward for what they regarded as just doing their jobs.
But in some cases, the experiences resulted in improving the law. Brad Stone, who now works for WSB-TV in Atlanta, was an investigative television reporter in Detroit working on a story about the inner workings of gangs and how they market drugs. When police suspected a gang member of murdering a state trooper, they tried to access Stone’s sources and footage, on and off for three years.
He said there was a constant threat of going to jail during that time, and accusations that he was protecting a murderer despite the fact he said he had nothing to do with the case.
“(They said) ‘the shield law does not apply to you, it only applies to print journalists because it was passed in like 1918 and the law needs to be updated. In the meantime you’re going to jail for the rest of the grand jury’s term,’” Stone said. A federal judge let him out, and Michigan eventually updated its shield law so it now includes television reporters in addition to print.
In Lisa Abraham’s case, the jail time did not make her question her profession -- it did the opposite. In the end, a judge ruled Abraham did not have to testify because she was not the only source of the information. She had interviewed a county engineer in Ohio about his $100,000 office renovations.
“It only reinforced my decision that I was in the right profession. I had people come up to me in the grocery store afterward and say, ‘you’re a hero, I love what you did.’ I think there are people out there who are just anxious to have an active and zealous press and they don’t get it maybe often enough or as often as they think they should so I would like to think that I would definitely do it again,” Abraham said.
And for others, they felt used. One minute the government would be criticizing the press, and the next they would want the journalists to hand over information no one else could get. Leggett was writing a true crime book when she got a call from the FBI asking to talk.
The first time they asked her for information about a crime, she gave it to them because the burden was on her.
“They did not use it at the trial, he was found not guilty. The feds investigated him for the same thing, came to me, said, ‘will you help us?’ I said, ‘sure let’s talk.’ I was looking at them as sources. I wanted to use them, this is the laughable part, one of many, for their subpoena power. I had a lot of information I wanted that I could not get because I did not have subpoena...they used their subpoena power on me instead. That was their great joke,” Leggett said.
Leggett, as well as Wolf, also often were called not journalists because they were not reporters for a media organization. But Wolf would define journalists not by the people themselves, but by the act of “committing journalism:” gathering information for the purpose of synthesizing and aggregating it to present to an audience.
Miller, a former national security reporter for The New York Times, also said the definition needs to be broad.
“It seems to me that if you walk like a duck, quack like a duck, and write like a duck, or broadcast like a duck, you’re a duck. And you ought to be covered by a media shield law that we desperately need now because… under the Obama administration covering national security is the toughest it’s ever been, ever, ever, ever,” Miller said. “There are more journalists who have gotten more subpoenas on national security issues than in all of the former presidencies combined ...This should not occur.”
For video of the panel and question and answer session, visit thesentinel.com/mont.