Saturday, July 09, 2005

Point, Counterpoint, and Confusion

This week's installment of Almanac on the local PBS station deals with journalism and confidential sources.

Check Your Sources Out East there's a big legal fight over
reporters and confidential sources. It's landed a prominent journalist in jail.
We debate the issues from both sides. Attorney Paul Hannah will square off with
Doug Kelley.

Nice of them to provide both sides of the argument. However, it turns out that Paul Hannah was the attorney defending the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch in the Cohen v. Cowles case.

Now, as a former criminal defense attorney, I know that it is not fair to confuse the misdeeds of the client with the aims of his lawyer. There is no nexus between the attorney's own beliefs and the task of representing his client's interests, except where the attorney volunteers for a pro bono case or specializes in representing a certain type of client. With that caveat, it still is improper and an "irony" (Hannah used this word four times on the show) for him to pontificate on the sanctity of a reporter's promise of confidentiality.

On a side note, many have compared reporter shield laws to other legal privileges like attorney-client. It is important to note that in that latter cases, the privilege belongs to the client. So if reporters (does that include bloggers?) are to enjoy similar legal protection, the decision whether to violate confidentiality belongs to the source and not the reporter. This demonstrates just how outrageous the conduct of the newspapers was in Cohen v. Cowles. Even if the current journalists had their wish with regard to reporter shield laws, it would not have permitted them to break their promise to Cohen.

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