We now have in hand the first evidence from the heartland — where, lest we forget, most journalism is committed — that the misbegotten demands of special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald and the rulings of various courts in the cases of Time magazine and the New York Times have cast a chill on good work being done by journalists in less exalted precincts.

It comes from one Doug Clifton, editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, who told Editor & Publisher on Friday and the New York Times on Saturday that, on advice from alarmed corporate lawyers, he is withholding from publication two major investigative articles based on leaked documents.

“These are documents that someone had and should not have released to anyone else,” Clifton told the Times. The Times summarized his concerns: “If an investigation were pursued, the newspapers, its reporters and their sources could all face court penalties for unauthorized disclosures.”

Clifton has been a fearless and resolute editor, first at the Miami Herald, and now in Cleveland, where he works for Newhouse Newspapers, so when he characterizes the documents in hand as “profoundly important” and “of significant interest to the public,” we believe him.

He further says his lawyers have told him printing the material would be “a high-risk endeavor” likely to lead to an investigation of the leaks and subsequent subpoenas demanding that the paper finger its sources. “The reporters said, ‘Well, we’re willing to go to jail,’ and I’m willing to go to jail if it gets laid on me, but the newspaper isn’t willing to go to jail,” Clifton told E&P.

Earlier, Clifton wrote in the Plain Dealer, “As I write this, two stories of profound importance languish in our hands. The public would be well-served to know them, but … [p]ublishing the stories would almost certainly lead to a leak investigation and the ultimate choice: talk or go to jail. Because talking isn’t an option, and going to jail is too high a price to pay, these two stories will go untold for now.

“How many more are out there?”

How many indeed?

This is a bad moon rising. And one that should send a chill down the spine of anyone who cares about an inquring press and an informed citizenry.

Steve Lovelady

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Steve Lovelady was editor of CJR Daily.