No Congressman, Journalists Don't Like Going to Jail

Rep. Trey Gowdy thinks it's a good idea to send reporters to jail if they don't divulge their sources because, hey, journalists don't really mind a little jail time every once and awhile. 

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Rep. Trey Gowdy thinks it's a good idea to send reporters to jail if they don't divulge their sources because, hey, journalists don't really mind a little jail time every once and awhile.

The unusual rationale entered the congressional record Wednesday during a House Judiciary subcommittee hearing about the uptick of sensitive national security leaks. The South Carolina Republican suggested that U.S. attorneys begin subpoenaing journalists to find out who leaked the nation's classified information.

"Put them in front of the grand jury," Gowdy said. "You either answer the question or you're going to be held in contempt and go to jail, which is what I thought all reporters aspire to do anyway. I thought that was the crown jewel of the reporter's resume to actually go to jail protecting a source."

In reality, Gowdy's remarks, however tongue-in-cheek, misunderstand two fundamental truths about journalists. First, reporters basically pay lip service to protecting sources if jail time is in the offing. Second, you can multiply this tendency by a thousand if you're talking about the Washington press corps, which almost never loses a member of its flock to the slammer.

Reports about Gowdy's remarks were quick to point out that in 2005, New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal her sources in connection with the Valerie Plame scandal. What's often forgotten about the scandal is how many Washington reporters cut waiver deals with Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald allowing them to disclose confidential source information with prosecutors. Bob Woodward did it, so did The Washington Post's Walter Pincus and Glenn Kessler, in an increasing trend the American Journalism Review called "waivering."

Reporters may talk tough about protecting sources, but when it comes to serving time, it's a rare event. According to the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which has a database of instances in which reporters who were jailed for refusing to testify, it's only happened 17 times since 1984. And if you want to count Washington, D.C. in that time period, it's only happend once in the instance of Miller. It's a disparity former Slate columnist Jack Shafer drew attention to in 2005.  "The Washington press corps thinks that protecting confidential sources is essential to doing its job—except when jail time is a possible consequence of doing that job," he wrote. Compared with outside-the-beltway folks, the record of Washington's scribes isn't too hot.

The 85-day prisoner-of-conscience performance Judith Miller turned in at the Alexandria Detention Center showed only half the pluck of one Vanessa Leggett, the Texas freelance writer who spent 168 days in jail for refusing to testify before a federal grand jury. (How many celebrities visited her?) Leggett won release only because the grand jury expired: Should a new grand jury serve her with another subpoena, she could earn a return trip to jail and maybe even face years on criminal contempt charges. From the sounds of it, she's ready to go to jail again if pressed.

Likewise, academic Rik Scarce spent more than five months in jail rather than answer prosecutor queries about his Ph.D. research on a radical environmental group. Compared with the courage of these two outlanders, we in the D.C. press corps pay only lip service to the supposed sanctity of the reporter's right to protect his sources.

That's not to say Washington reporters are liars and hypocrites (barring jailing time, journalists go to great lengths to protect their sources). But the idea that serving your time in the slammer is some sort of journalistic calling is laughable--especially when it comes to the Washington press corps.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.