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Shield Law Hearing

A bill that would protect journalists from revealing their sources goes before a State House hearing this morning. The measure would allow reporters to withhold their sources from the courts in every case, unless disclosure is necessary to prevent terrorism.

Most major news organizations in Massachusetts, including WBUR, are pushing for the protection. Here's WBUR's Fred Thys with more on the story.TEXT OF STORY

FRED THYS: In 2001, reporter Jim Taricani, aired this FBI video that shows one of its informants handing a bribe to the second-highest city official in Providence.

TAPE: Mark, it's my understanding that Harry is interested in that Caraway bakery.

THYS: On the tape, provided by NBC Channel 10 Providence, the official then makes a call trying to land a city contract for the FBI informant. The tape was part of the Plunderdome investigation that eventually put Providence Mayor Buddy Cianci behind bars.

The judge ordered that it not be played outside the courtroom, but as Taricani explains, this was explosive evidence.

JIM TARICANI: We decided that the public should see this tape. It was one of the most vivid examples of public corruption, seeing this city official accepting a $1000 cash bribe in a city office in the middle of the day.

THYS: The law came down hard on Taricani. Federal prosecutors tried to get him to reveal his source. He refused. Eventually his source came forward, but the judge still punished Taricani with six months' home confinement.

Richard Knox, then a reporter at the Boston Globe, had found himself in a similar quandary in 1995, when he reported a ground-breaking series on medical errors at the Dana Farber Cancer Instiute. A doctor who was the subject of much of the reporting sued Knox and the Globe for libel. At the same time, the doctor demanded that Knox turn over his sources so that she could use that information in a second lawsuit she had launched against the Dana Farber. He refused.

RICHARD KNOX: The issue in our case was a renowned Harvard hospital made some egregious medical errors, and our stories were all about how this could have happened. We needed to get inside the institution at a very difficult time for the institution , and try to find out what set this up to happen.

THYS: Because Knox wouldn't reveal his sources, the judge refused to let him and the Globe present a defense in the libel suit the doctor had filed against them, and they lost.

CHARLES KRAVETZ: I think those of us in the media feel we're in perilous times, now.

THYS: The effort to pass a law protecting reporters from having to reveal their sources is led by Charles Kravetz, of New England Cable News.

KRAVETZ: There is a tremendous tension between government and the media, between industry and the media, and there has been an explosion of subpoenas and reporters being dragged into court and being threatened with jail time, media companies being fined for not revealing their sources.

THYS: Police officers oppose the legislation. Jim Machado, the director of operations for the Massachusetts Police Association, says the law would impede criminal investigations.

JIM MACHADO: We're fearful that the law would actually allow criminals to actually walk the street. We're fearful that police would not receive the information.

THYS: Machado says sources sometimes give reporters information about a crime that they're too afraid to tell the police, but that the police need to solve the crime. He says with a properly funded witness protection program, reporters' sources would not have to fear having their identities released. Some journalists are also opposed to the law. Bill Ketter was the long-time editor of the Lawrence Eagle-Tribune, and is now vice president of editorial for the paper's parent company, Community Holdings.

BILL KETTER: I'm a purist when it comes to the first amendment. I believe that reporter's privilege, the right to protect our confidential sources, is implied in the first amendment, and I like to stand on that. Now, if you put an asterisk on the first amendment and say that it's not all that it was cracked up to be, that we also need a law, then you run the risk that the law will be changed in the future, to the detriment of the reporters, the journalists and the media.

THYS: Ketter says he's bothered by journalists pleading for protection from the legislature that they are supposed to cover. It's not clear how the proposed law will fare. The lead sponsor in the House, Democrat Alice Peisch, says she has at least a dozen co-sponsors, but she also says she has not yet had a chance to gauge Speaker Sal Di Masi's interest in the bill.

This program aired on June 12, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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