Newsday reporter Timothy Phelps refused yesterday to tell a Senate special prosecutor who leaked him confidential Senate material regarding Clarence Thomas. Mr. Phelps was the reporter who first broke the story that Anita Hill had told the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Federal Bureau of Investigation that Mr. Thomas had engaged in grossly improper behavior. Mr. Phelps' refusal was proper and courageous. He could eventually be cited for contempt.
Mr. Phelps used to be a reporter for The Sun. We know him to be a responsible journalist who would not report a story without properly checking his sources -- and one who will not expose those sources once he has given them a promise of confidentiality.
The public knows the importance of using confidential sources, especially in finding out information public officials want to keep hidden. Official misconduct often cannot be discovered without leaks from vulnerable, fearful subordinates. They need to know reporters they are dealing with are trustworthy. That is why many states, including Maryland, have created a statutory right. The Supreme Court has recognized a limited First Amendment right to protect sources. Indeed, the Supreme Court ruled only last ZTC year that a source could sue a reporter for breaking a promise of confidentiality.