Dual Loyalties

My opinion on the people who shape our world

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

William Safire is Scared - Is he a Journalist or an Agent of Influence

Top columnist warns courts fostering "chilling" US media climate - Yahoo! News: "Top columnist warns courts fostering "chilling" US media climate Wed Jul 20, 6:46 PM ET

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Veteran New York Times columnist William Safire said he was afraid to rigorously condemn a "chilling" assault on journalism by the courts, fearing reprisals against a colleague jailed for contempt of court.

Safire told a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, probing a bill which would shield reporters who refuse to reveal their sources, that the threat to the media was a result of "unchecked abuse of prosecutorial discretion."

"I cannot blaze away at the escalating threats of a federal judiciary that is urgently in need of balancing guidance by elected representatives of the people," he said.

"For the first time, I have to pull my punches. The reason is I'm afraid. I'm afraid of retaliation against federal prisoner 45570083, whose byline in the New York Times is Judith Miller."

Miller was jailed two weeks ago after refusing to reveal her source, for a story that she never even wrote, to a grand jury probing a political scandal centering on White House political guru Karl Rove.

The investigation is trying to find out whether Rove or other officials exposed CIA agent Valerie Plame after her husband Joseph Wilson criticised administration claims about Saddam Hussein's alleged nuclear weapons program.

The Free Flow of Information Act, under scrutiny at the hearing, would bar federal agencies from forcing a journalist to spill the name of a confidential source, except when there was an imminent threat to national security.

US Deputy Attorney General James Comey had been due to testify but did not appear, disappointing Senators, who said his written testimony submitted to the committee contained an strong argument against the proposed law.

Time Magazine journalist Matthew Cooper, who would have followed Miller to jail were it not for a last-minute waiver of confidentiality from his source, also testified at the hearing.

He was accompanied by Time Inc. Editor in Chief Norman Pearlstine, who handed over Cooper's emails to the grand jury to escape contempt penalties against the magazine, a decision which drew fire from press freedom advocates.

The decision was the "toughest" of his career, Pearlstine said, and was "one I should never have had to make."

"The experience has only deepened my commitment to ensure protection for confidential sources and made clear to me the urgent need for federal legislation."

Miller meanwhile marked her second week in prison, in Alexandria, outside Washington.

She is being held in a crowded cellblock of about 20 women, and to begin with, she was sleeping on a foam matress on the floor, according to a memo to New York Times employees sent by Executive Editor Bill Keller.

Miller is allowed visits from friends at regular jail visiting hours and has some capacity to make collect calls.

She is expected to serve at least until the mandate of the grand jury expires in October, and supporters fear expanded criminal contempt proceedings could follow."