The Press Does Not Need More Power

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It does not seem like much of a story.  In the big picture, it passes for a small detail.  But it is an important detail, perhaps a crucial detail, perhaps even the kind of detail that might one day lead to the big picture’s being at least partially reconfigured.

The Minnesota Supreme Court (search) has ruled that a newspaper reporter in St. Paul must name names.  Specifically, he must reveal the identities of the confidential sources he cited in a story about a fired football coach, a man who claimed that the story defamed him.

The reporter is Wally Wakefield (search) of the Maplewood Review.

The ex-coach is Richard Weinberger of Tartan High School.

The confidential sources said, “The coach is known for his temper, inappropriate comments and foul language.”

It might well be true.  Coaches of athletic teams are not often mild-mannered, thoughtfully responsive and pure of speech -- and if Weinberger was offensive in these regards, he should have been fired.  And, more to the present point, Wakefield should have written about the firing in the paper.

But for Wakefield to believe that he is entitled to report the charges against Weinberger without revealing his sources is for him to demonstrate an arrogance that is both personal and vocational, as well as a disregard for Weinberger that is both shameful and unjust.

And, of course, this is presently what Wakefield does believe. “I’m extremely disappointed with the decision,” he was quoted as saying after the state Supreme Court had ruled.  “I think it has some far-reaching consequences for the media.”

One can only hope.

What astonishes me most about reporters who insist that they be entitled to keep their sources confidential in all cases is their apparent belief in the reliability of those sources, their stubborn insistence that the sources are telling the truth and would not feel free to do so if their names were revealed.

What if the sources are not telling the truth?  What if they are people who bear a grudge against the subject of the reporter’s story, and are carrying out a vendetta, encouraged by anonymity?  What if they have some kind of vested interest in the outcome of the story, and are serving their cause, rather than the cause of accuracy, through their informing?

Let me put it another way:  Why do journalists seem so concerned with fairness to sources and not at concerned at all with fairness to those about whom they write?

(Regular readers of this column will note that I raised virtually the same point a few weeks ago in a column about the identities of rape accusers.)

The Minnesota Supreme Court voted against Wakefield by a margin of five to two. In her dissent, Justice Helene Meyer referred to the state’s Free Flow of Information Act (search), saying that “the purpose of the Free Flow Act is to provide a shield against disclosure of confidential sources---a shield that was intended to give more protection to reporters than is available under the First Amendment.”

It is a startling statement. Justice Meyer believes that the First Amendment (search) is not enough for journalists.  They need a separate piece of legislation in her state to enable them to do their work.  Some would argue that, given the way courts interpret the Constitution on behalf of journalistic and cultural excess these days, the First Amendment is often more than enough---that it is sometimes, in fact, a license for irresponsibility.

Obviously, Wakefield does not agree.  “This issue is really one of trust among the people who spoke with me,” he said.  Again, Weinberger does not enter into Wakefield’s thinking.  He makes no mention of an issue of trust with the deposed coach.

It is an example, and there are too many already, of journalists placing the dictates of their jobs or egos above the good not only of those whose stories they tell, but of the entire civil society. 

Eric Burns is the host of Fox News Watch, which airs Saturdays at 6:30 p.m. ET/3:30 p.m. PT and Sundays at 1:30 a.m. ET/10:30 p.m. PT, 6:30 a.m. ET/3:30 a.m. PT, and 11 p.m. ET/8 p.m. PT.

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