Sunday, February 10, 2013

Rest in peace: Annette Buchanan Conard

Buchanan (later Conard), who died last week at age 67, was the editor of the University of Oregon's Daily Emerald student newspaper in 1966 when the Em printed a story on student marijuana use. (Fortunately we've long-since solved that problem, eh?). She defied a Lane County DA and judge by refusing to turn over her sources.
Buchanan refused to divulge her sources, she told The Oregonian -- which referred to her as a "girl editor" in its headline -- because it would violate a confidence. To do so, she said, would stop people from revealing instances of graft, scandal or wrong-doing. She refused a second time before another grand jury, and was ordered to stand trial.

Eventually she had to go eyeball-to-eyeball with two grand juries and the Oregon State Supreme court -- where she lost a unanimous decision and ended up having to pay a $300 contempt-of-court fine, but was not ordered to serve jail time. (As Arlo Guthrie famously said at about the same time, “I didn't 'get' nothin'; -- I had to pay fifty dollars and pick up the garbage.")

Although an all-star legal cast submitted briefs on her behalf, the defendant lost.
Despite the support,the Oregon Supreme Court unanimously upheld the contempt conviction. Associate Justice Alfred Goodwin, a former newspaperman, said the court reached its decision because "nothing in the state or federal constitution compels the courts, in the absences of statue, to recognize such privilege."
And that's about as close as you'll ever see to a State Supreme Court Justice saying, “Wake up, people! Oregon needs a shield law for journalists!”

Oregon's shield law, immunizing reporters against searches, and being forced to reveal sources, research materials, was passed in April 1973.

Why have a shield law? Especially in an age when the convention of quoting “anonymous” sources is abused almost as much in the observance as in the breech?

Annette Buchanan's quote, above, gets at one part of the reason: It remains essential, if journalists are going to do their jobs properly, that sources can trust them and that we, in turn, can trust both them and their sources.

But there's another reason:
In 1971, The Oregonian's publisher Robert Notson praised Buchanan's fight to keep her sources confidential. "Until (Buchanan's case) journalists in Oregon relied on the judgment of prosecutors and the discretion of courts," Notson told the Register-Guard. "There was no known case in Oregon of a reporter having to violate a confidence until the Buchanan case."
Sounds nice. And, in some cases, relying on the judgment of prosecutors and the discretion of courts -- or other representatives of our government, elected or appointed -- is both necessary and appropriate.

But -- as the US's undeclared drone war in Pakistan, currently being waged with impunity by President Obama and his national security team demonstrates -- that reliance should never be absolute, and it should never be demanded without the possibility of legal recourse.

It's nice to suppose that we can count on the judgment and integrity of individuals, but Associate Justice Goodwin pointed out that there's a better solution. We even have a saying about it.

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