Journalists and media observers voiced anger and dismay Thursday over the decision by the publisher of Time magazine to give information about one of its reporters’ confidential sources to a grand jury.
Some said the announcement by Norman Pearlstine, Time Inc.'s editor in chief, confirmed their fears that increasing corporate ownership of media organizations had become a threat to press freedom.
But others said that Time Inc., a unit of Time Warner Inc., had no choice but to comply with a lower court ruling and turn over the information after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to review the case.
Until Thursday, Time had stood with the New York Times in refusing to relinquish information their reporters had developed separately about the revelation of a CIA operative’s identity. It is a federal crime to disclose the identity of a covert agent, and both news organizations were investigating who had leaked her name.
Matthew Cooper, a Time reporter, and Judith Miller of the New York Times face up to four months in jail for refusing to give up their sources to special prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald. A federal judge is scheduled to impose their sentences next week.
“For 30 years, we’ve assumed that strong journalistic institutions would stick together and protect their employees,” said David Halberstam, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and author. “Now, a new wind is blowing. That united front is gone.”
A key reason for the change, he said, was that Time magazine had been “swallowed up” by a conglomerate that must answer to a board of directors and millions of shareholders.
Pearlstine said that he and his corporate bosses had backed Cooper’s refusal to hand over information to prosecutors, defending the right of reporters to enter into relationships with anonymous sources. He assailed the court rulings and what he predicted would be a “chilling effect on our work.”
Yet some speculated Thursday that Pearlstine would be viewed as compromising a fundamental tool of journalism.
“I can’t believe there will be too many anonymous whistle-blowers who will want to communicate with Matt Cooper, knowing that he can be turned in by Norm Pearlstine,” said Orville Schell, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. “What happened at Time Inc. is clearly troubling for anybody who values the watchdog function of the media.”
Others, however, gave Time Inc. credit for fighting a long court battle on behalf of an important journalistic principle.
Time “pushed this issue to the limit, further than it’s been pushed in years, and the judge finally said, ‘OK, you’ve reached the end. Now you have to obey the law,’ ” said Alex Jones, director of the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.
Opinions were mixed Thursday about the long-term effect Time Inc.'s decision might have on newspapers, magazines and electronic media.
Some said that the corporate bottom line did not have to be the final word in such cases, noting that a media company could choose to disobey a law, pay a fine and take a stand as a matter of conscience.
“If a company refuses to obey a law it believes is wrong, and agrees to penalties, that doesn’t mean the company is acting as if it’s above the law,” said Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of the (Portland) Oregonian. “It means that the company is taking a principled position.”
Time Inc. knew the importance of a reporter’s right to protect confidential sources, she said, because “editors and reporters don’t give up this information. It’s inviolate. We just don’t do this.”
Phil Bronstein, executive vice president and editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, said his paper would not be intimidated by the Time Inc. decision.
He said the Chronicle had refused to cooperate with requests for information from the U.S. Attorney’s office about the newspaper’s investigation of BALCO Laboratories Inc. and steroid use by athletes.
“We are continuing to steadfastly refuse to turn over any confidential information, and the Time Inc. decision doesn’t affect us,” Bronstein said. He said his paper’s owner, Hearst Corp., had backed the Chronicle’s decision not to reveal sources.
“I’m not standing in Norm Pearlstine’s shoes, and I don’t know everything that’s going on,” Bronstein said. “But the free press is under attack now. You have to be more vigilant.”