Newsmen's Rights

December 20, 1972

Report Outline
Fight over protecting new sources
Relationship of Press and Government
Debate Over Privilege for Journalists
Special Focus

Fight over protecting new sources

Government-Press Battle in Jailing of Reporters

The press and the government have been set on a collision course over a question that poses a constitutional dilemma and holds wide political implications. It is whether members of the press may legally refuse to divulge their confidential sources and information to grand juries and other agencies of government. At least three newsmen have gone to jail in recent weeks for their refusals and others face the same fate. The Supreme Court has spoken on the issue but by no means has settled it. Though declining to provide newsmen immunity from prosecution when they refused to testify, the Court did suggest that Congress or the state legislatures might enact laws offering such protection. These so-called “shield laws” already exist in 18 states in some form or other, and several other states are likely to consider adopting them in the 1973 legislative sessions.

Spokesmen for the press—both print and broadcast—tend to see the jailing of reporters as intimidation and harassment arising from a presidential administration bent on cultivating a climate of public opinion hostile to the press. Those who hold this view recall the tongue lashings that Vice President Spiro T. Agnew gave to the press, implied threats to broadcasters about license renewals, and efforts of the Justice Department to prevent specified newspapers from publishing excerpts from the Pentagon Papers. There have also been instances of policemen posing as reporters and of police harassment of the underground press. Newsmen tend to characterize these tactics as attempts to discredit the news media or enlist the press as an investigatory arm of government.

There are others who regard the matter not in terms of a partisan or ideological dispute between the Nixon administration and sections of the press but rather as the recurrence of an old conflict—a conflict with roots in the Constitution—between law and journalism. The First Amendment's right to freedom of speech and press is often hard to reconcile with some of the other constitutional guarantees. In this case the conflict is with the precept that every American stands equal before the law—and hence none can be exempt from its provisions. It has long been the proud boast of Anglo-Saxon law that no person is too high to escape the obligation of testifying before a grand jury.

ISSUE TRACKER for Related Reports
Journalism, Newspapers, and the Media
Jan. 28, 2022  Misinformation and the Media
Oct. 02, 2020  Social Media Platforms
Sep. 18, 2020  The News Media
Aug. 24, 2018  Conspiracy Theories
Jun. 09, 2017  Trust in Media
May 30, 2014  Digital Journalism
May 03, 2013  Media Bias
Apr. 26, 2013  Free Speech at Risk
Apr. 12, 2013  Combat Journalism
Nov. 2010  Press Freedom
Oct. 08, 2010  Journalism Standards in the Internet Age
Feb. 05, 2010  Press Freedom
Mar. 27, 2009  Future of Journalism Updated
Jun. 09, 2006  Blog Explosion Updated
Jan. 20, 2006  Future of Newspapers
Apr. 08, 2005  Free-Press Disputes
Oct. 15, 2004  Media Bias
Oct. 10, 2003  Media Ownership Updated
Dec. 25, 1998  Journalism Under Fire
Jun. 05, 1998  Student Journalism
Sep. 20, 1996  Civic Journalism
Sep. 23, 1994  Courts and the Media
Aug. 24, 1990  Hard Times at the Nation's Newspapers
Jan. 19, 1990  Finding Truth in the Age of ‘Infotainment’
Aug. 18, 1989  Libel Law: Finding the Right Balance
Jun. 06, 1986  Magazine Trends
Oct. 12, 1984  News Media and Presidential Campaigns
Jul. 15, 1983  State of American Newspapers
Oct. 23, 1981  High Cost of Libel
Dec. 23, 1977  Media Reforms
Mar. 11, 1977  News Media Ownership
Jun. 21, 1974  Access to the Media
Dec. 20, 1972  Newsmen's Rights
Aug. 16, 1972  Blacks in the News Media
Dec. 15, 1971  Magazine Industry Shake-Out
Jul. 18, 1969  Competing Media
Sep. 02, 1964  Politicians and the Press
Dec. 04, 1963  Libel Suits and Press Freedom
Jan. 09, 1963  Newspaper Mergers
Dec. 20, 1961  Reading Boom: Books and Magazines
Dec. 02, 1959  Privileged Communications
Apr. 25, 1956  Newsprint Deficit
May 06, 1953  Government and the Press
Sep. 21, 1948  Press and State
Sep. 05, 1947  Newsprint Supply
Mar. 26, 1947  Facsimile Newspapers
Dec. 10, 1945  World Press Freedom
May 01, 1940  New Experiments in Newspaper-Making
Nov. 04, 1933  Press Freedom Under the Recovery Program
Freedom of Speech and Press
Regulation and Legal Issues