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Allowing reporters to protect their sources

April 30, 2011
By Delegate John Doyle, The Doyle Report

Last year I sponsored a bill called the "reporter shield." As the concept is one with which many folks are unfamiliar, I thought it would take several years to build sufficient support to pass it.

I was wrong. We passed it this year.

Often it takes a number of years to get a new concept enacted into law by the legislature. That's due to the cautious nature of most legislators and the system of multiple roadblocks that is the legislative process.

That process is designed to make sure the legislature does not, in the heat of the moment, pass an idea that represents a "majority of the moment." Some people get discouraged and/or irritated because legislative bodies often seem to take forever to solve problems.

"Why don't they just do what's right?" I often hear.

The underlying assumption of that phrase is that everybody agrees on what is "right." That's a big mistake because there are often multiple points of view about just what is actually "right."

I first became aware of the reporter shield idea a few years ago, during the famous "Valerie Plame" case. Valerie Plame was a CIA agent whose identity was revealed, possibly first by the late columnist Robert Novak (although he denied it and some argue others revealed it before Novak). It's illegal to intentionally "out" a CIA agent.

Plame's husband, Joseph Wilson, was sent to Niger to investigate the source of the "yellowcake" uranium that Iraq's then-ruler Saddam Hussein had supposedly tried to buy. Wilson said his investigation showed no such purchase. This became part of the debate over whether Saddam did or did not have weapons of mass destruction.

Plame's CIA "cover" identity was as a secretary for the agency. The political tug-of-war over yellowcake resulted in her outing as an actual agent. Some who supported the attack by the United States against Saddam contend that Plame had arranged for her husband to do the investigating, possibly to get the result Wilson got. Plame, Wilson and the CIA deny this.

Enter Judith Miller, a reporter for the New York Times. Miller had reported that Plame was an agent. She was called as a witness in the trial of "Scooter" Libby, an assistant to Vice President Dick Cheney who was accused of being the source of Plame's outing. Miller refused to reveal her source and was sentenced to several months in jail for contempt of court.

I know this bit of history is missing pieces, and I apologize. I have tried to be both as balanced and as brief as possible, as the subject of this column is neither Plame, Wilson, Novak, Cheney, Miller, Saddam nor yellowcake. It's about reporter shield.

Often a reporter can uncover and report details about a crime by agreeing to not reveal the source of the information. Prosecutors naturally want the name of the source, so they can find the actual criminal(s).

A source may not want his or her name revealed because the source is in on the crime. Or sources may fear for their safety if their names are revealed. Either way I think the safety of the public is enhanced if the reporter is allowed to offer anonymity to the source in exchange for the information.

Thomas Harding, editor emeritus (my designation) of The Observer (a monthly published in Shepherdstown), called my attention a couple of years ago to the fact that West Virginia lacked a reporter shield law. The State Supreme Court had previously accepted the general concept that a reporter could legally withhold sources, but the protections given by that case were not very strong.

So I introduced the bill in 2010. Many delegates told me they would consider supporting it if it came to a vote, but only Delegate Virginia Mahan, of Summers County, agreed to co-sponsor it.

After the 2010 regular session of the legislature was over, I began to engage Delegate Tim Miley, of Harrison County, in discussions about the issue.

Delegate Miley is chair of the House Judiciary Committee, to which the bill had been referred. He told me he supported the idea, but the committee's plate was already full by the time the 2010 session commenced. He said he intended to run the bill in the 2011 session.

He was true to his word, and his committee passed the bill to the floor. Delegate Bonnie Brown, of Kanawha County and a member of Judiciary, was particularly helpful.

Sen. Corey Palumbo, also of Kanawha County and chair of Senate Judiciary (which got the bill when it passed the House of Delegates), was also quite helpful. The senate actually improved the bill. My original version only applied to people who do journalism professionally either full-time or part-time. The senate extended the protections in the bill to student journalists.

Please pardon me while I toast. I consider the passage of this bill one of the more significant achievements of my 20 years in the legislature.

***

Don't forget our town meeting this coming Monday, May 2 at the Bolivar Community Center, 60 Panama St. in Bolivar. It will begin at 7:30 p.m. and end by 9 p.m. We will discuss the recently completed regular session of the legislature.

 
 

 

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