It got worse. County officials set up a special prosecutor to investigate the newspaper and individuals who worked on the project. Gallagher, facing criminal prosecution, abandoned his carefully constructed self-image as an intrepid reporter and quickly cut a deal. He waived Ohio’s shield law and agreed to reveal sources. It was stupefying.
Within months of publication of what I thought was the best project of my young career, I found myself sitting in a shabby, windowless conference room in a low-rent section of Cincinnati’s modest downtown. My lawyer and I sat on one side of a scuffed table. The special prosecutor and his associates sat on the other side. They frowned and smoked cigarettes.
The special prosecutor wanted me to do something simple: sign a piece of paper agreeing to waive Ohio’s shield law. Doing so would require me to disclose confidential sources with whom I had spoken during the yearlong investigation. He made clear that the risks of not cooperating were great, and threatened to indict me on unspecified charges. I could lose my job; I could go to jail, he said. I must fully cooperate and waive the shield law or he would come after me. His threats, for a while delivered hourly in telephone calls to my lawyer, ranged wildly. He claimed he was going to prosecute me for being a co-conspirator of some kind. Now that I look back, his threats seem like bluster. At the time, they scared the hell out of me.
But early on in the crisis, I came to an unavoidable conclusion: keeping a source confidential was at the heart of being a journalist. I told the prosecutor I wouldn’t waive the shield. I clung to it.
Before the Chiquita fiasco, I considered journalistic responsibilities and rights in the abstract. I had a dim sense that the great challenges of my unfolding career might involve dodging bullets in a foreign war or secretly meeting some high-ranking White House official in a parking lot. Someday, in the future, I would be that journalist, I thought.
These notions, of course, evaporated in Cincinnati. My challenge was in that room with the chain-smoking special prosecutor. The question was not what journalist was I going to become, but what journalist was I at that moment. In this life, we learn about what we really believe not when things go well, but when they go wrong. I learned in that room that I would face jail rather than discuss confidential sources.
Looking back, I believe that my position was not machismo; it was an innate reaction as a reporter. I wasn’t just refusing to identify a particular person or persons; I was asserting that journalists, even amid failed projects, must stick to their promises and their rules. These rules did not evolve haphazardly; they developed naturally out of our essential role in an open society. Courts have not recognized the right of journalists to refuse to identify sources as flowing from the First Amendment. But journalists have resisted identifying sources since before the American Revolution.
I also don’t think my position was romantic. Reporters don’t promise confidentiality because of an idealized notion of the whistleblower. Though sometimes confidential sources are indeed heroic and altruistic, more often they are not. They sometimes have base motives, like revenge or personal gain. Some have political motives. Others have a grudge. Some are criminals, which can raise special complications that the courts have wrestled with over the years.