BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. Last July, syndicated columnist Robert Novak printed a tip he says he obtained from two administration officials that Valerie Plame, wife of Ambassador Joseph Wilson, was a CIA operative. The tipsters broke the law when they supplied her name, but Novak won't reveal their names. Though Novak is the only one who ran with the scoop, it seems that those loose-lipped officials slipped her name to a handful of reporters. Now a federal grand jury has subpoenaed at least two reporters, NBC's Tim Russert - who says he never got the leak - and Time Magazine's Matthew Cooper. Neither of them ever named Valerie Plame, but they will fight the subpoenas because journalists, if they want to remain journalists, do not reveal their sources. Lucy Dalglish is the Executive Director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. She joins me from Washington, DC and says that state shield laws that usually protect journalists offer little shelter in federal cases.
LUCY DALGLISH: There are shield laws in about 34 states that make it very difficult for investigators to subpoena the media in those state court proceedings. On the federal level, we rely on a very complicated First Amendment privilege, and in the last couple of years, the federal courts have been much less likely to recognize that privilege than they have in the previous 30 years.
BOB GARFIELD: So Tim Russert and Matthew Cooper, a reporter for Time magazine, have been subpoenaed. What happens next?
LUCY DALGLISH: What I think their employers will do is go to U.S. District Court here in Washington, DC and move to get the subpoenas quashed -- that is, have them thrown out.
BOB GARFIELD: Now the investigators were supposed to have exhausted all other possibilities before resorting to subpoenas to journalists. That seems to have happened pretty quickly, no?
LUCY DALGLISH: We know that they had been having grand jury testimony from White House staffers over the last couple of months, and the law really does require them to exhaust those sources before they turn to the journalists. So, I am a little bit surprised at how quickly it's come up, but when the big gun media like NBC and Time magazine are subpoenaed, they're going to pull out the checkbooks, pay the lawyers, and this can hold up that particular investigation 'til well past the election.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, NBC has said quite emphatically that Tim Russert is not a leakee to begin with. Is it clear to you why he is on the list?
LUCY DALGLISH: No, it's really not. But perhaps they thought if they could go after a really big name in town and put pressure on him, maybe they could get other people lower down to come up with the information, but I don't think there's any way Mr. Russert is, number one, going to testify about the sources, and as NBC said, he doesn't know who they are.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, what about Novak himself. He could solve this problem in a heartbeat by simply revealing his source. Would you be pleased or displeased if Robert Novak were to tell investigators who his source was?
LUCY DALGLISH: Well, assuming he made promises to his sources that he would not reveal them, and assuming that if he did reveal them, it made sources in this town much less likely to trust reporters, then I'd have to say I would be very displeased.
BOB GARFIELD: What about when a crime is being committed, and especially a crime by a sitting administration? At some point doesn't the news of an elected government breaking the law for political reasons trump the sanctity of the shield laws or even the ethical canon against revealing sources?
LUCY DALGLISH: You have to remember that, particularly here in Washington, the media often operate on leaks, particularly when it comes to national security issues, and I think you could point to countless stories where great public good was done because information was leaked from government agencies. Journalists keep their ethical obligation not to reveal confidential sources. They value it just as much as doctors and lawyers and priests view their obligations to keep information confidential. And I would hate to have a situation where, if Mr. Cooper from Time magazine is forced to reveal a source, that you could make an argument that Mr. Cooper's career as a reporter in this town could be over.
BOB GARFIELD: Is there any evidence that the enormous cost of fighting these legal battles is having a chilling effect and that news organizations are more likely to cave in to the wishes of government than they were, you know, let's say ten years ago?
LUCY DALGLISH: Well, one thing I have noticed is a slight increase in the number of media organizations that are refusing to extend legal coverage to freelancers, if they're subpoenaed.
BOB GARFIELD: If you are caught, we will disavow any knowledge of your actions?
LUCY DALGLISH: [LAUGHS] Yeah, something like that.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, so now I want you to take off your advocacy hat and put on your, your clairvoyance hat and tell me - what's going to happen in the Valerie Plame situation?
LUCY DALGLISH: There probably are going to be more reporters subpoenaed. They will all get together with their lawyers and try to come up with some sort of a strategy. The case will kind of languish -- people will be rattling their swords a little bit. The reporters are not going to identify the sources, and then I think the administration will turn around and say - you know, we had a shot at finding out who the leaker was, but shame on you, you big, bad media -- it's all because of you that we'll never find out who it was.
BOB GARFIELD: Sounds plausible, I'm sorry to say. [LAUGHTER] Lucy, thanks very much.
LUCY DALGLISH: You're very welcome. It's always a pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: Lucy Dalglish runs the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.