What lengths should reporters go to in order to protect the identity of their sources? Recently, with the threat of subpoenas hanging over newsrooms from coast to coast, that question has taken on an ominous tone for many reporters. This morning, however, the Los Angeles Times succeeded at steering the issue of protecting one’s sources safely back into the realm of the absurd by protecting the name of two sources even after (a) the sources had come forward voluntarily and (b) the sources’ identities had been revealed in other articles, including one elsewhere in the Times.


The descent into absurdity began last week when the Times published an unflattering story about Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, under the headline: “Gov.’s Candid Moments Caught on Audiotape.”


“In the sanctuary of his Capitol office with an audio recorder rolling, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger describes Republican legislators as the ‘wild bunch’ and, referring to a Latina lawmaker, casually says that ‘black blood’ mixed with ‘Latino blood’ equals ‘hot’ — a fiery personality,” reported the Times. “The governor is heard on a six-minute recording, obtained by the Times, of a meeting with some members of his inner circle last spring.”


Later that day, Governor Schwarzenegger apologized for his comments. By Monday, however, the governor’s legal affairs secretary was striking a less defensive posture, suggesting that the recordings (which the Times had posted on its Web site) might have been obtained illegally. That day, a story in the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that a criminal investigation into the matter was already under way.


All of which seemed like the perfect setup for yet another showdown between investigators (seeking information on the source of a potentially illegal leak) and a news organization determined to protect its sources.


But long before the Times and the California Highway Patrol could even begin to think about squaring off, the anonymous source of the leak stepped forward.


Yesterday, aides for state Treasurer and gubernatorial candidate Phil Angelides admitted that they were in fact the ones who had given the recordings to the Times but insisted that they had obtained the information legally from a public Web site.


In any case, the Times was now off the hook and free to write openly about their source.


“State Treasurer Phil Angelides’ gubernatorial campaign on Tuesday said that it was the source of an audio recording of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger published last week by the Times, and said it was acquired from the governor’s Web site without a password and without hacking,” reported the Times this morning. “Angelides spokeswoman Amanda Crumley identified the two campaign workers as researcher Sean Sullivan and press aide Dan Newman.”


There was one problem. Apparently not everyone at the Times got the memo that the jig was up, that there was no longer any point in protecting the identity of the paper’s sources.


This morning, in addition to the newsy dispatch covering the specifics of yesterday’s press conference, the Times also published a piece summing up the general state of the gubernatorial race as it now stands. Along the way, the Times’ reporter touched upon the latest developments in the brouhaha over the tapes — or, at least, the latest developments that the longsighted reporter was aware of.


“Schwarzenegger’s team said the files came from an area of the Web site that required a password for entrance,” noted the Times’ state-of-the-race piece. “The Times has refused to name its source.”

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Felix Gillette writes about the media for The New York Observer.