THIRD MAN IN: Holding the court in contempt

Behind the Bench/Sports by

To quote the First Amendment to the Bill of Rights:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

As a Canadian citizen, I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the United States’ Constitution, nor am I going to pretend that I could name an amendment in the Bill of Rights before looking it up on Wikipedia. I’m not even a law major; in fact I only recently learned that a brown paper bag isn’t an adequate disguise for an open bottle of vodka.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that the recent trial and sentencing of Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams for contempt of court is a ridiculous abuse of the spirit of the First Amendment, seriously threatening investigative journalism as we know it.

Now I will admit that I’m slightly biased, being in the position of a quasi-journalist. That being said, the fact that Fainaru-Wada and Williams have been sentenced to 18 months in jail (the duration of the current grand jury), while steroid dealer Victor Conte-the “mastermind” behind the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative (BALCO) scandal-received only four months, is a serious breach of the basic principle of fairness. Not to mention the fact that a certain large-domed perjurer walks free.

But the more pressing issue is that of freedom, or more specifically, freedom of the press. Fainaru-Wada and Williams were the co-authors of a series of San Francisco Chronicle articles detailing the pervasiveness of steroids in professional sports, and later, the co-authors of the groundbreaking Game of Shadows that exposed Barry Bonds, Marion Jones, Jason Giambi and Tim Montgomery as users of performance-enhancing drugs.

Unfortunately for Fainaru-Wada and Williams, the most convincing material found in the book was information from classified federal grand jury testimonies, which the authors received from an unnamed source. Months after the publication of the book, the US government decided to investigate who leaked these supposedly confidential testimonies. The two reporters refused to name their confidential source-who had unquestionably violated US law by revealing grand jury testimony-and now they will pay the price for their silence.

Now I understand this is no Watergate, but journalists need to have the freedom to report on injustices committed against the public. Would “Deep Throat” have informed Woodward and Bernstein of the Watergate scandal if a situation similar to the BALCO debacle occurred beforehand? Is this case, which is not a matter of national security, nor a breach of safety, really worth pursuing?

If nothing else, this trial has ignited a debate over the role of media in our society, a debate that will hopefully be resolved by the passing of a proposed national shield law which is currently before the US Senate. But Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams did a service by revealing the corrupt nature of pro sports and forcing the owners to clean up the major leagues. President Bush even commended the reporters on their work over dinner at the White House earlier this year. Now, they have become martyrs for their cause, while the real criminals walk free.