Thursday, October 20, 2005

Question

It's disgusting that we are stuck with having a discussion about the limits of the first amendment in the context of this administration's tawdry attempts to attack a critic, but here we are.

So here's a hypothetical situation.
The FBI, as part of their Innocent Images National Initiative, is working to track down people involved with a conspiracy to distribute child pornography. Meanwhile, a reporter tracks down a ring of people passing around child pornography and interviews one of them about it, promising confidentiality. Local police may or may not be able to compel that reporter to give up the name of the person who talked, depending on the state's "shield law" protection for journalists. Under the proposed federal shield law, however, the FBI may not compel the reporter to give up the talker in order to prove their conspiracy case.
Is this extreme? Yes it is, but we often only discover the true wisdom of a decision when we've reached the extreme edge of that decision's result.

For those who would argue that no reporter would ever write such a story, I would remind you of Jay Rosen's excellent piece about the "abyss" of observation alone. In it, he repeats a (possibly apocryphal) story I heard from dozens of journalists in Bosnia.
During the siege a correspondent from a Western news agency is contacted by an intermediary, someone he knows, who has an offer: to go out one night with Bosnian Serb snipers and see for yourself what they do.

A deal is struck, and he accompanies the men to one of their perches in the hills above the city, where they train their rifles on civilians, who might be trying to cross the street. This is where the siege “happens,” in a sense. This is the action itself.

“Come here,” says one of the men, after he has located a target. The sniper motions to take a look. The reporter, who in his own mind had come to see, leans over and peers for a second or two through the lens of the rifle.

He sees two people who think they are out of range standing in an alley, completely vulnerable. That is when the sniper, retaking the lens, says: which one, left or right?

This alarms the reporter. “I have no answer to that,” he says. “I didn’t come to be involved in what you do.” The sniper throws back his head to laugh, and returns to his rifle. There is a pause. In two quick bursts he kills both people just seen through the lens.

“You should have answered,” the sniper says to the Western correspondent. “You could have saved one.”
And what of the Neo-Nazi newsletter writer who writes about a confidential source's plans to attack blacks in a neighboring state? A million hypotheticals are possible here, especially when you take into account that we, as bloggers, feel that what we do should also be considered journalism. There are some damned extreme views out there already and, while I do not wish to silence those views, I definitely don't want the purveyors of such views to be able to cover up crimes that stem from them.

I value the first amendment and a free press, but there must be limits. No one can morally justify protecting a confidential source instead of saving lives or protecting, as in the example, children from predators.

I'm willing to accept arguments to the contrary.

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