MEDIA BRANDS: Wen Ho Lee saga places a harsh spotlight on the dangers of unnamed media sources

A week before Christmas, Reuters published what should have been an inspiring account of journalists standing up for their constitutional rights in the face of strong legal pressure. At the tail end of a harrowing year for The New York Times, a pair of the paper's investigative reporters remained true to a long-standing Times' policy and refused to reveal anonymous sources in a lawsuit. The case's particulars, however, made cheering their cause almost impossible for all but the most tunnel-visioned advocate of the First Amendment.

A week before Christmas, Reuters published what should have been an inspiring account of journalists standing up for their constitutional rights in the face of strong legal pressure. At the tail end of a harrowing year for The New York Times, a pair of the paper's investigative reporters remained true to a long-standing Times' policy and refused to reveal anonymous sources in a lawsuit. The case's particulars, however, made cheering their cause almost impossible for all but the most tunnel-visioned advocate of the First Amendment.

The lawsuit in question is part of the strange, sad saga of Wen Ho Lee, a former Los Alamos scientist who was disgraced and imprisoned amid suspicion that he provided China with nuclear secrets. The government's case ultimately fell apart, and Lee was never charged with espionage. He is now suing the FBI and the Justice and Energy Departments for violating his privacy rights in the series of leaks that led to the Times' flawed coverage in 1999. The Reuters story dutifully reported most of these facts and added some perspective by quoting a media-rights advocate on the scope of the alleged violations of press freedoms. But, in a striking lack of balance, the story failed to even mention the far-reaching negative effects caused by those very leaks, the most pernicious being the wrongful imprisonment of Lee. Nor did the account even hint at the media firestorm set off by the Times' coverage. Extreme criticism by those who parsed the major investigative effort led to a controversial accounting of the paper's reporting that was neither a correction nor a clarification, but a 1,600-word "Editor's Note" that, in retrospect, looks like a warm-up for that bloodletting of a correction that followed the Jayson Blair affair. The most obvious explanation for omitting these hardly tangential details is that to note the pervasive factual problems caused by these sources being protected would be to risk a substantive debate on the boundaries of the First Amendment. Most reporters are averse to this sort of discussion, as they fear that giving an inch on source protection would result in the loss of a yard. Unlike the relationships doctors and lawyers have with patients and clients, discussions between sources and reporters aren't universally privileged. Nine times out of ten, reporters are fully justified in insisting on a far-reaching privilege for sources. Their protection is crucial to the flow of information, but when the information they provide is so woefully incorrect, it's at least worth pondering how reporters can be manipulated by those who enjoy their staunch protection. None of this is to say the Times' James Risen and Jeff Gerth, or for that matter, the three other reporters who have been subpoenaed, should give up sources. Rather, Lee's tale, in whatever forum it's discussed, should remain a shameful case study where the news media - and one of its most cherished conventions - aided the betrayal of a US citizen by his own government.

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