A few of us remember when a young man named James Risen joined The Journal Gazette fresh out of Northwestern's journalism school and was a reporter here in 1978-79. He did some good reporting. In a yellowed clip file, there are photos of him using a drill and a welder for an article he did about working on the International Harvester Scout assembly line. And he got married at Trinity Lutheran Church while he was here, to his college sweetheart, Penny Blank, who was an editor at The News-Sentinel. They had their reception across the street at the Women's Club.
Now Risen, 59, faces the possibility of going to jail for a principle he and most other professional journalists fervently believe in.
Forty-nine states have measures known as shield laws that allow journalists to protect the identity of their sources in most circumstances. Indiana's shield law is one of the strongest.
There is no federal shield law, although Congress has come close. When he was a congressman, Gov. Mike Pence led the effort to pass such a law, along with former Sen. Richard Lugar.
“I have always valued my time in Fort Wayne,” Risen wrote us in an email this week. “I always tell people that George Tetherly was like my drill sergeant, screaming at me, and finally forcing me to get better.” Tetherly, the quintessential crabby city editor, died in 1989. Risen went on to the Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times before joining the New York Times in 1998. There, he has won two Pulitzer Prizes for his reporting. James and Penny Risen have three children, one of whom, Tom, is a journalist at U.S. News and World Report.
Shield laws do not offer journalists absolute protection – a judge may determine that a journalist's role as a citizen overrides his or her need to protect sources. But allowing journalists to offer sources some confidence that their identities won't be revealed can make the difference between getting a vital story to the public or letting it be buried in secrecy.
Such was the case when someone told Risen about a reckless spy plot that went seriously awry – a fiasco apparently approved by both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, whose administrations managed to keep secret for several years.
In 2000, the CIA hatched a plot, called Operation Merlin, to sabotage Iran's efforts to develop a nuclear device by smuggling an Iranian representative flawed blueprints for a bomb.
A Russian scientist in the pay of the CIA passed the bomb-design plans to the Iranians but couldn't resist pointing out the flaws that his handlers had inserted into the information.
Reporting the incident in his 2006 book, “State of War,” Risen wrote that Merlin, rather than setting back Iran's program, may well have accelerated it when Iranian scientists, alerted to the blueprint's flaws, compared the information with other nuclear data they had available.
As usual when official mistakes are revealed, the government goes into high gear to punish the leaker. Risen has fought government efforts to get him to identify his sources for the Merlin story since 2008. An ex-CIA agent was charged in 2010 with being the leaker.
Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene in Risen's case. Though Attorney General Eric Holder maintains that reporters won't be jailed for doing their jobs, at the moment, Risen is in danger of being held in contempt of court and sent to jail.
“I will continue to fight,” is all that Risen's lawyers would allow him to say about the case this week.
We think the Obama administration, which has been generally unsympathetic to issues of journalistic freedom, should drop the whole Merlin matter and Congress should renew its efforts to pass a national journalistic shield law.
We believe that's essential for journalists to perform their watchdog role. The case could have a chilling effect on investigative journalism throughout the country.
But full disclosure demands that we tell you we feel a little more strongly about this one.
We're proud of Jim Risen, who cut his journalistic teeth in this newsroom. And we don't want him or other reporters in the future to have to go to jail for doing their job.