Prison unfair for `Shadows' authors

September 22, 2006|By Rick Maese | Rick Maese,Sun Columnist

San Francisco — San Francisco--The damage wrought by the steroids controversy keeps growing.

You already know about the compromised sanctity of the game, you know about the potential dangers posed by performance-enhancing drugs and you know about the influence that sporting officials fear will spread to our high schools and our teenage athletes.

Now, with inalienable First Amendment rights lined up in the crosshairs, we're really starting to understand the depths of the danger.

More than 100 people filled the seats at the U.S. District Courthouse yesterday, and there were two questions that must've threaded their way from person to person: Was it all worth it? And why would they do this?

If an expected court appeal fails, two San Francisco Chronicle reporters will head to prison for the reporting they did to shine light on the biggest sports controversy of the young century. Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, authors of Game of Shadows, will not tell federal prosecutors the source of leaked grand jury testimony that provided much of the framework for their stellar reporting.

As a result, they stand to face more time behind bars than anyone else associated with the Bay Area Laboratory Co-Operative investigation - more than Victor Conte or Greg Anderson and certainly more than Barry Bonds or Marion Jones.

Two guys who did their jobs, who told the world something we all didn't want to hear, but certainly needed to. Was it worth it? Why would they do this?

The answers, we learned yesterday, are sobering. The ramifications of the hearing have nothing to do with a ballgame, and everything to do with the way we live our lives and the democracy that we fight so hard to protect.

Fainaru-Wada told U.S. District Court Judge Jeffrey White that he followed his brother into the newspaper business. He recalled watching and reading All the President's Men, the book-turned-movie based on The Washington Post's reporting of the Watergate scandal.

"It inspired me to become a reporter," Fainaru-Wada said. "Journalism seemed like an honorable, meaningful profession."

It is; that hasn't changed. In fact, as Williams eloquently told the judge, the media and the courts have the same goal: to shine light on truth and justice. I guess that's why it was so deflating to hear the judge's ruling.

Of course, the judge has to follow the letter of the law. After all, Fainaru-Wada and Williams in essence permitted a criminal action - the leaking of grand jury testimony - to occur. But sadly, the judge chose the harshest punishment possible, opting against a fine and instead imposing time behind bars.

That's when you pause for a second and realize that the reporters are standing up for an important principle. For them, though, it's also a personal decision. By keeping their lips sealed, Williams is saying he's willing to be apart from his wife for up to 1 1/2 years. Fainaru-Wada is saying he's willing to miss out on 18 months of his children's lives.

"I do not wish to spend even one minute in jail," Fainaru-Wada told the court.

But as any journalist will tell you, there's really no decision to make. "They demand that I throw over some of my most deeply held ethical and moral beliefs," Williams said. "Both as a journalist and a person."

Really, the key players in the BALCO controversy have always been symbols. Barry Bonds might be a target of federal investigators, but he's always been emblematic of something much bigger. Similarly, Fainaru-Wada and Williams now represent something bigger, something that is impossible to discern from a family photograph.

You see, once their ability to do their jobs is impaired, a chain reaction is set off. If a reporter can't promise key sources anonymity, people won't share important information and big stories will go unreported. The ultimate victim is a society that's less informed.

Ask yourself this, how would you feel if Fainaru-Wada and Williams weren't able to report the BALCO controversy as fully as they did? And we didn't learn the depths of the steroid problem? And leagues and colleges and high schools didn't know there was a need for more stringent testing?

Would that have been worth it?

A federal shield law - similar to laws adopted by 31 states that protect a reporter's ability to do his or her job - would have helped Fainaru-Wada and Williams. Congress needs to pass strong legislation immediately. Not because it's important to a couple of sportswriters; but because it's important to all of us.

"I do despair for our country if we go very far down this road," Williams told the judge.

And that's when everything in your head should have changed. The most important question wasn't really, "Was it worth it?" or "Why would they do this?"

You started to wonder what it would mean if they didn't.

And suddenly this steroid controversy, which has turned our heroes into punch lines and our playing fields into laboratories, has officially landed on every doorstep of every neighborhood.

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