A federal judge in Providence, R.I., convicted a veteran local television reporter of criminal contempt yesterday for refusing to identify the person who gave him an FBI videotape showing a top city official taking a bribe.
Investigative reporter Jim Taricani, 55, who had heart transplant surgery in 1996, faces six months in prison when he is sentenced Dec. 9 by Chief U.S. District Judge Ernest C. Torres.
A rough-hewn man known for plying the back streets and bars of Providence in search of stories, Taricani, of WJAR-TV, an NBC affiliate, read from a statement on the courthouse steps after his 45-minute trial.
"When I became a reporter 30 years ago, I never imagined that I would be put on trial and face the prospect of going to jail simply for doing my job," he said. "The government has used its resources and power and the threat of jail to try to coerce me to identify a confidential source.
"This assault on journalistic freedom exacts a high price," said Taricani, whom the judge had fined $1,000 a day until he named the source. NBC paid about $85,000 on the reporter's behalf until the judge dropped the sanction two weeks ago when he decided it was not persuading Taricani to cooperate.
The Providence case is similar to many in the federal courts now, as prosecutors turn with new vigor to the task of trying to get reporters to name their sources. Judges have found eight journalists in contempt of court in recent months, and several could end up in jail in the near future. Prosecutors have pursued two of them, New York Times reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine's Matthew Cooper, as part of a federal probe into the identity of the White House official who leaked the name of a CIA officer to syndicated columnist Robert D. Novak.
Both reporters have refused to reveal their sources.
Thirty-one states have journalistic shield laws, which allow reporters to protect sources. But federal law offers no such protection.
"We're really in a bad way -- it's sort of a 'Perfect Storm' for reporters now," said Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. "We're seeing more of these cases than any time in the past 35 years."
Taricani committed no crime by airing the tape, which reveals an FBI informant handing an envelope thick with cash to a top aide to former Mayor Vincent A. "Buddy" Cianci Jr. Taricani's news report and the tape aired in 2001, just before Cianci and the aide, Frank E. Corrente, went on trial. A jury convicted the defendants, who are serving federal prison terms.
Torres, who had ordered defense lawyers and prosecutors not to release any tapes related to the case, was furious about the airing of the tape. He appointed a prominent local lawyer, Marc DeSisto, 49, as special prosecutor and assigned him to find the source of the leak.
DeSisto soon homed in on Taricani and said he had no protection and therefore no justification under federal law for withholding the name of his source.
"A reporter has the same obligation as any other citizen to disclose information that the reporter possesses regarding the commission of a crime," DeSisto told the court in March, according to a transcript of those proceedings. "This is not a case where the source acted lawfully and out of some civic-minded desire to expose wrongdoing that otherwise might go undetected."
DeSisto noted that in this case, the prosecutors already had brought an indictment. The risk is that Taricani's decision to air the videotape could have tainted the jury pool, DeSisto said.
Such arguments, however, failed to move Paul K. McMasters, First Amendment ombudsman for the Freedom Forum in Arlington. He said that journalists often find themselves balancing complex demands in cases such as this, and that prosecutors and judges do damage to the Constitution by trying to force testimony.
"If a defendant can't get a fair trial, there's a remedy in law. There's no remedy if you censor a reporter," McMasters said. "We have a heart transplant survivor prepared to go to jail to defend his principles -- I wouldn't want to be this judge."