Major media organizations have rallied to the defense of Washington Times reporter Thomas D. Brandt, who is resisting a House Ethics Committee subpoena for his notes after he disclosed results of the panel's investigation of Geraldine A. Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic vice-presidential candidate.
Brandt was subpoenaed Dec. 6 and ordered to appear before the committee Dec. 21 with all notes and documents he used in preparing the Ferraro story. Brandt disclosed in a story last week that the committee's secret report had found that Ferraro had committed several violations of congressional financial disclosure rules; the panel made the report public the next day.
"As a professional journalist, I really can't provide them with any notes and materials that they could use to look for sources that I promised confidentiality," Brandt said yesterday. "I simply can't discuss the issue of sources."
Media organizations ranging from the Society of Professional Journalists to The Wall Street Journal have criticized the committee's subpoena on First Amendment grounds.
"Reporters have a right to protect their sources, and the subpoena should be resisted in every way," said Richard M. Schmidt, counsel to the American Society of Newspaper Editors. He said the House panel, formally known as the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, can conduct an internal investigation without questioning the reporter.
"What is the overriding interest in discovering this?" Schmidt asked. The Ferraro report, he said, "was released prematurely. There's no matter of national security here. It's almost a question of pride."
The Standing Committee of Correspondents, which represents more than 1,500 Capitol Hill reporters, has written committee Chairman Louis Stokes (D-Ohio) that the subpoena "will have a chilling effect on reporters who cover Congress, for whom confidential sources have long been an accepted stock in trade.
"For members or staff to share sensitive material with selected reporters and then to turn around and subpoena them for accepting the information changes the rules of the game and amounts to unwarranted harassment," said the letter, which was signed by Associated Press reporter Thomas Raum.
John Bray, an attorney for The Washington Times, said he has asked the panel to withdraw the subpoena. "It is our intention to stand with the reporter on his assertion of a time-honored privilege," Bray said.
Brandt said he understands that the committee is giving questionnaires to staff members as part of its internal probe. "Obviously they have a problem with leaks," Brandt said, adding that the panel may be using the subpoena to try to stem future unauthorized disclosures.