Jeff Mullin / columnist

Judith Miller will not spend this weekend at the beach, the park or even at the movies or the mall.

She will spend this weekend in jail.

Of course hundreds of thousands of people are in jail throughout the country, so Judith Miller is not unique in that respect.

What is unique is why she is jailed. She did not rob anybody, did not drive drunk or deal drugs. Judith Miller is jailed because she is a journalist.

That's not strictly true, of course. Judith Miller is in jail because she refused to cooperate with a federal investigation of whether senior administration officials leaked the name of an undercover CIA operative to get back at a vocal critic.

Miller, a reporter for the New York Times, refused to tell a grand jury the name of a confidential source in her reporting on the disclosure of the CIA agent's name by a Bush administration official.

Time magazine reporter Matthew Cooper avoided going to jail at the last minute when he agreed to testify about his source. He told the judge his source had released from his promise of confidentiality shortly before the hearing began.

Miller is the 18th reporter jailed in the past 20 years for refusing to identify sources or turn over information to the courts.

The fact a journalist has been jailed for doing her job bothers me, of course, since I am in the same profession. But why should it bother you?

Deep Throat. The most famous unnamed source in American journalism history, whom we now know was former top FBI official Mark Felt, was the cornerstone of the Washington Post coverage that helped topple the Nixon administration in the wake of the Watergate scandal.

When journalists are dealing with sensitive, controversial subjects, sources often will not come forward without the promise of anonymity. We try not to use anonymous sources, but when we do, we pledge to protect their identity no matter what. We don't promise just to keep their names secret until somebody in authority puts the heat on us.

If a reporter reveals the name of a confidential source, they no longer will be able to command the trust of other sources. So the information they could offer will not appear in print and the public's right to know will be compromised.

That is the principle for which Judith Miller is fighting. She is not sitting in jail this weekend, and facing the possibility of incarceration until the grand jury finishes its term in late October, because she simply enjoys rebelling against authority.

"I do not view myself as above the law," she told U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan, who ordered her jailed. "You are right to send me to prison."

She went on to say she had an obligation to protect her source.

"I do not make confidentially pledges lightly, but when I do I must honor them," she said.

If the courts can compel journalists to reveal confidential sources, their ability to do their jobs will be compromised. And if those of us in the press are not free to do our jobs, then the guarantee of a free press in the First Amendment to the Constitution will be compromised.

The public and the press, however, do not seem to see eye to eye on this issue.

A study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center found 44 percent of journalists said government has no right to limit the press' ability to report a story, compared to just 29 percent of the general public.

Seventeen states, including Oklahoma, and the District of Columbia have so-called shield laws in place that recognize a reporter's privilege to protect confidential sources in state court, but no such statute covers federal court.

Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate to establish federal shield laws, but neither has progressed very far.

The prosecutor in the case in which Miller refused to testify, said "We can't have 50,000 journalists, each making their own decision about whether to reveal sources."

Actually, we don't need 50,000 judges telling journalists we can't do our jobs.



Mullin is senior writer of the News -- Eagle.



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