Saturday, July 23, 2005

On the PD scandal

I've been out and about in the blogosphere (yes, I am feeling better -- I can almost smile without pain.) A fair amount of buzz about the PeeDee withholding the Mike White investigation story, Scene scooping the PD and the anticipated judicial inquiry. I've been commenting on other posts, so if you followed me here, this may get repetitive.

One topic for discussion is whether the PD should have withheld the story in the first place. Because I am a former prosecutor, I have slightly different sympathies. I don't have a problem with a newspaper holding off on a story if it will compromise an ongoing investigation. They still have it if Greg White (unexpectedly and inexplicably) elects not to pursue a viable case against Mike White. The function of the fourt estate is fulfilled. This sort of journalistic social responsibility is a thin line to walk and I have too little information to judge whether the PeeDee made the right call in this case. But in principle, I don't have a problem.

Federal prosecutors are speculating that a defense attorney is a source of the leak. If so it means that 1) any public's-right-to-know arguments are crap. This is just a defense attorney trying to screw with the government's case, and 2) a newspaper serves the public interest when it thinks twice about being the tool of an unethical lawyer.

So the mere fact that the PD held off on the story as a result of the court order doesn't bother me. On the other hand, I have a problem with Clifton being a wuss about it. If he withheld the stories because it was the right thing to do, fine. If he withheld out of fear of being hauled up to court, he should be ridiculed about it. And I can't help but wonder if he was holding the story to respect the investigation, then saw the opportunity for his "pity we poor journalists" editorial when Judith Miller did the perp walk.

I mentioned in the discussion on Kevin Drum's blog that the Ohio press shield law, while comprehensive enough to cover this situation, won't help in this case since this is in Federal Court. For anyone keeping score at home, the Ohio statute is here.

Finally, for some idle speculation about where this goes from here. I have appeared before Judge Gwin; he would lose no sleep over sitting reporters or editors in the pokey for not revealing their source(s). The sources themselves would be in considerably less trouble. For defying a court order they probably are eligible for no more than a civil contempt fine, though if they are lawyers on the case, they could get a bar complaint for their troubles as well.