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The Right Stand on the Wrong ‘Exclusive’

How swell it would be if no news sources were anonymous. How swell it would be, also, if Bosnia were serene and the Oklahoma City bombing a dream, if there were no violence or earthquakes or hunger or illness or greed or crime or bigotry or governments driven by political partisanship.

But the real world intrudes.

Part of that world? Anonymous sources, whistle-blowers who would permanently pocket their whistles if they believed that the price of revealing inside information to the media--stuff important for the public to know--would be exposure leading to loss of job or career. In some cases, even loss of life.

If that were the case, Deep Throats would dry up and the press would be widely viewed as an extension of the powers that be. That would severely cripple journalism in the United States, meaning that the ultimate losers, regardless of political persuasion, would be members of the public.

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No inside news is bad news. Many Americans rail against “the media,” often with good cause. Yet they should try life in a country where the press is restricted to reporting only the official line. Better a flawed, unshackled press than a docile one.

So . . .

Tracie Savage was right to risk jail this week by invoking the California Shield Law in response to a request in court that she name names.

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Recognizing the critical importance of confidential sources, the shield law wisely protects reporters from having to break that bond of confidentiality and also from having to hand over unpublished material such as notes or photographs. The exception--and this is where remaining mum put Savage in potential peril--is when it’s demonstrated that withholding such information jeopardizes a defendant’s right to a fair trial.

That’s the latest cosmic issue arching across the O.J. Simpson double-homicide trial. The narrower issue addresses the performance and judgment of Savage and her station that got her into this mess.

Right stand in court by Savage, wrong story.

Savage is the KNBC-TV Channel 4 reporter who again finds herself and her credibility under scrutiny in the Simpson case as a result of reporting on two occasions last September that DNA tests confirmed that blood found on socks in a bedroom at Simpson’s Brentwood mansion was that of Nicole Brown Simpson, his ex-wife, whom he is accused of murdering along with Ronald Lyle Goldman.

The heroine’s mantel is a bad fit here. Savage would be this season’s Joan D’Arc of journalism--a potential shining martyr for the cause of press freedom--if not for the fact that the story she’s now being held accountable for was flat-out wrong when she reported it.

It was still wrong a day later when she defiantly affirmed it on the air after it was refuted in court and publicly criticized by Judge Lance Ito. No, sir, no one was going to bully Savage and Channel 4.

As it turned out, the story was false because the socks had not yet been sent out for DNA testing.

Later DNA tests did show that the blood was Nicole’s, turning Savage’s report into something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. That led Simpson’s attorneys to charge that Savage had been fed information by a person or persons in the Los Angeles Police Department who knew that the blood on the socks would ultimately be a DNA match for Nicole’s because blood extracted from her during an autopsy had been planted on them as part of a cop conspiracy to frame the defendant. The prosecution has ridiculed the defense’s conspiracy scenario.

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That debate rages on. Not in dispute, though, is that Savage’s erroneous story became the symbolic epicenter of media frenzy regarding the Simpson case. Shooting from the hip with guns blazing, Savage rushed onto the air--obviously with the approval of her bosses--a story that was potentially devastating to Simpson and his defense.

How did such bogus information get on the air without adequate fact-checking? Gerald F. Uelman, one of Simpson’s defense attorneys, got it right Monday when successfully arguing before Ito that Savage be compelled to testify in court. Uelman characterized Savage’s story as “some news agency getting an exclusive so that they can get an edge” on the competition. At a high cost.

The incident is a primer on bad decision-making motivated by competitive pressures. And it makes you wonder about Savage’s sources.

Answering questions on the stand under oath Monday without the jury being present, Savage declined to reveal the identities of her “multiple sources"--her words--for the erroneous story. It’s good to know that Savage believes in corroboration. Plus, she said her sources were “knowledgeable.” But, as we now know, not very knowledgeable.

And here’s where it gets dicey. Savage didn’t really specify whether she had “multiple sources” for the entire story or separate sources for the separate components--the socks being found, the DNA analysis being conducted, the DNA analysis indicating a match, etc.--that would add up to “multiple.” The breakdown would be instructive, for if Savage had just a single source for something as significant as the then-erroneous DNA match, reporting it would have been especially irresponsible.

Moreover, Savage refused to say in court how many sources she relied upon, on the grounds that such information, too, would compromise these sources. But how would citing the number of sources make them easier to identify? The LAPD and prosecution have vast numbers working on this case.

On the other hand, the number of her sources could be critical to understanding more about the origin of her story. For example, one could understand, possibly, how two such “knowledgeable” sources could be so misinformed. But what if Savage had even more sources? What if she had, say, six? Could it be that so many sources merely were, coincidentally, in possession of incorrect information? Or could it be inferred that with so many persons feeding Savage erroneous information, another agenda had come into play?

Or perhaps Savage merely misunderstood the information she was given. Incompetence or irresponsibility or being duped? Not much of a choice.

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