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Monday, July 11, 2005

Los Angeles Times Sticks It to the Suits in Chicago

Today's New York Times story on the rippling effects of the Plame Affair mentions a new sourcing policy to be implemented this week at the Los Angeles Times:

One example of the level of concern about government and private efforts to unmask sources is a new ethics policy at The Los Angeles Times, to be issued this week, which instructs journalists to "never enter into any company computer unnamed sources."

John S. Carroll, the paper's editor, said the policy was motivated by the concern that prosecutors could unmask sources by issuing subpoenas to the newspaper's technology support staff, or even the chief executive of the Tribune Company, which owns The Los Angeles Times. "They don't operate by the same rules as we do" in the newsroom, Mr. Carroll said.

What's interesting about this is that, as I've mentioned before, the Tribune Co.'s corporate ethics guidelines, which apply to all the company's media units including the Los Angeles Times, explicitly require reporters to inform confidential sources that their identities may be revealed to a court of law. They also require reporters tell at least one editor the identity of any unnamed sources.

The only explanation for requiring one's reporters to tell their confidential sources, in effect, "If it ever gets to court, I will rat you out," is that either Tribune Co. assumes that all of its reporters are incapable of keeping their word in the face of contempt charges, or that the corporation itself has no intention, if subpoenaed independently, of keeping promises made in its name by its reporters. Could be a little of both. Either way, the guidelines make clear that, as Carroll said, the suits "don't operate by the same rules" as the hacks in the newsrooms.

Except. I was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune when those guidelines came down about a year or so ago, and when I asked first the public editor and then the editor in chief for clarification as to why I should be telling my confidential sources that I may rat them out in court if I had no intention of ever doing so, I was told repeatedly that things can get very complicated and very expensive when reporters get subpoenaed. I asked again and again if Chicago Tribune reporters could be assured that the newspaper would honor promises of confidentiality if it came down to court-ordered sanctions, and never got a "Yes." These were not suits talking. They were newspaper editors. And they made clear that the guidelines I was choking on--and I was by no means alone in objecting to them--were well-thought out, thoroughly lawyered, and accurately represented the editorial leadership's position when it came to confidentiality.

Contrast that with the Los Angeles Times' position, which is essentially a fuck-you to the Tribune Co.--We don't trust those corporate functionaries in Chicago, so we're going to play by our own rules and make sure we keep important information off of any servers they own. (In fact, it's sort of stunning that Carroll singled out Tribune Co. CEO Dennis FitzSimons practically by name as someone unworthy of his trust.) It's a wise move on Carroll's part, and it's a mystery to me why the leadership of the Chicago Tribune can't take a similar position. Whose rules do they play by?