Right to know under attack
WASHINGTON – Imagine that you are an employee at a large corporation, and you learn that your company is dumping highly toxic waste, contaminating the local water supply. You consider calling the police, but you are afraid word will get back to your superiors, causing you to lose your job, or even worse. Finally, you call a local news reporter and share what you know, provided that your name is kept strictly confidential. The reporter investigates the story, those responsible are charged and convicted, and countless lives are saved.
Such a scenario underscores the critical importance of the public’s right to know, and the role of the press in preserving that right. Our Founding Fathers understood that a free and independent press – one unfettered in its ability to investigate and report – is the best guarantee that citizens will receive the information they need to make informed decisions and to hold powerful parties to account.
Over two centuries later, however, the public’s right to know is under attack. Across our nation, journalists have been pressured by prosecutors to reveal confidential sources to aid in federal investigations.
The possibility of reporters being sent to jail for refusing to reveal confidential sources is not merely an issue of concern to journalists. It should send shivers down the spine of every American.
If reporters are unable to promise confidentiality to their sources, many conscientious citizens will choose not to come forward with information out of fear for their jobs, their reputations, even their lives. The public’s ability to hold those in power accountable – whether in the government or in the private sector – will be severely compromised. In a real sense, when the public’s right to know is threatened, so are all of the other liberties we hold dear.
Those of us who lived through the early 1970s remember how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the sordid saga of Watergate with help from a confidential informant known as Deep Throat.
Does anyone truly believe that Deep Throat would have lifted the veil of secrecy from the Nixon White House without a guarantee of anonymity? Had he thought for a moment that his identity might be revealed, he probably would have kept quiet – and serious wrongs harmful to our country might have gone undetected.
Currently, 31 states and the District of Columbia have “shield laws,” which protect the anonymity of reporters’ confidential sources. This patchwork quilt of legislation – which does not cover federal courts – is inadequate for an issue of such fundamental importance as the public’s right to know.
What is needed instead is a strong and comprehensive federal law that shields confidential sources from government investigators. Clearly, we need to balance the public’s right to know with other compelling issues of public concern, such as the need to solve a crime.
Reporters should be required to divulge the information that their sources provide to them regarding such matters if that information cannot be obtained elsewhere.
With reporters being hauled before courts and facing prison time simply for doing their jobs, it is incumbent on Congress to take swift and decisive action. The public’s right to know is in serious danger. As James Madison put it, “popular government without popular information or the means of acquiring it is but a prologue to a farce, or tragedy, or perhaps both.” Let us hope Madison’s warning does not go unheeded.
Christopher J. Dodd is a Democratic senator from Connecticut.