The Chron is under fire for protecting a source in the Balco steroid story who leaked grand jury testimony to the paper to help his clients. The source, attorney Troy Ellerman, insisted in court papers that he wasn’t the leaker and that the publicity was hurting his clients’ chances of getting a fair trial. Ellerman has now pleaded guilty, and the Chron reporters who used his leaks, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, are no longer facing jail for refusing to identify their source.

Tim Rutten of the LA Times called the conduct of the two reporters “sleazy and contemptable.” Rutten writes:

    “There’s more at stake here than just an abstract preoccupation with journalistic ethics or the trade-school mechanics of handling sourcing in news stories. Journalists consumed with a self-interest so strong that it makes them the willing dupes of manipulative sources report what they’re meant to report and not the information the public has a right to know.”

Slate’s Jack Shafer asks these questions:

    “Does the Chronicle regret having quoted so faithfully from grand jury transcripts? Was it trying to bait prosecutors into subpoenaing its reporters? That’s how it looks from a distance. Does it regret the last taste it took of the transcripts? Why didn’t the paper do a better job in preparing the public for the Ellerman bombshell? During its long legal fight to keep its reporters out of jail for refusing the grand jury subpoenas, the Chronicle gave no indication of its morally ambiguous relationship with Ellerman. It was all “rah-rah-rah” for the First Amendment. Looking back, does the newspaper wish it had done something to prevent its relationship Ellerman from becoming so … morally ambiguious?”

And criticism also is coming from within the Chron, according to Will Harper of SF Weekly, who said veteran reporter Tom Abate questioned during a newsroom celebration whether Williams and Fainaru-Wada were “used” by their source.

In response to the criticism, Williams told E&P:

    “Do you want the information or not, is what it comes down to … As reporters, we have so few means to persuade people to talk to us. You can offer confidentiality — and once you have done that, you have to keep your word.”

For the record, neither Bronstein or Williams will say whether Ellerman was their source. Fainaru-Wada has declined all comment.

Bronstein told E&P that t is important to look at source motives, but said judgments need to take all aspects of a story into account. “In my experience as a reporter and an editor, sources have motives,” he said. “And they range from good to bad. People need to, in general, make sure they consider everything.” (Sept. 21 photo of Williams (center left) and Fainaru-Wada (center right) by Darryl Bush of the Chronicle.)

SF Press Club News

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