The government is certainly sending a strong message about steroids to the nation's youth. Kids, whatever you do, don't mess up your life by becoming a reporter.
In case you missed it -- and you probably did since it didn't involve Baby Suri or Paris Hilton -- a federal judge declared Thursday that he will jail the authors of "Game of Shadows" if they refuse to name their sources for the leaked grand jury testimony in the BALCO case. Writers Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams are appealing the judge's decision, but if they lose, U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White said he will throw the two in jail for 18 months.
So if you're scoring at home, here are the punishments for everyone involved in the BALCO case so far:
• Thompson: We all lose
• Mailbag: Readers react to sentencing
• Vote: Should writers have to reveal?
• Chat Rewind: Fainaru-Wada and Williams
• Chronicle reporters sentenced
• Chronicle reporters react
• Distributing steroids: three to four months in jail and three to four months of home detention.
• Actually using steroids: No punishment.
Talk about a game of shadows.
This, then, is the real crime in the BALCO case -- the two writers, who did more than anyone else (including the investigators and the prosecutors) to expose the truth behind what was going on, are the ones who will be punished the most. It is all so maddening. The government launches a high-profile investigation into steroid use, then punishes the reporters far more harshly than the criminals.
Who is the real target here? Steroid abusers or the press?
I can understand the court's desire to protect what is supposed to be confidential grand jury testimony by finding the source of the leaks. Yes, that's a legitimate aim. But how about doing a little investigative work yourself before tossing the reporters in jail? Besides, didn't they do exactly what the investigation was supposed to be doing? Shine the public light on the steroid business?
Some people criticize sportswriters for having turned a blind eye to steroid use in sports. Well, here are two sportswriters who investigated and exposed steroid use for everyone to see. And instead of being congratulated, they're probably going to jail.
It probably won't help Fainaru-Wada and Williams, but Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is sponsoring a federal shield law that would provide reporters protection from having to reveal their sources. He knows the greater public good is served by a press that is free -- truly free -- to do its job. Unfortunately, the growing corporate attacks on whistle-blowers and the government threats to reporters are seriously undermining that freedom.
And don't fool yourself -- when the press loses its freedom, you lose your freedom.
If a reporter can't guarantee confidentiality, sources won't talk. That means stories about crooked government contractors pocketing your tax money, companies that are polluting the water you drink, corporations that are building unsafe vehicles you drive, cops on the take who are supposed to be protecting you, elected officials bending the law to serve themselves instead of you -- you name it -- won't get written.
You will, however, still be able to get some very nice releases from a government spokesperson or slick PR guy telling you that everything is just fine, the radiation leak isn't harmful at all, contamination from the spill didn't reach dangerous levels, pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, these aren't the droids you're looking for.
Oh yes, and lots of photos of Baby Suri.
"All the President's Men" was on TV the other night, and I had the same reaction watching it that I usually have. That's what real journalism is all about. Exposing corruption and telling citizens the things they need to know to keep our country free and strong. During his eloquent statement to the judge at Thursday's hearing, Fainaru-Wada spoke about how that movie inspired him to be a reporter.
I can only hope that his story prompts another great movie that inspires a new generation of reporters. But the way things are going, I fear it will only scare them off.