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Opinion divided on Time magazine's decision

July 04, 2005 15:31 IST

Time magazine's decision to reveal the source of an investigative story by its reporter has divided scribes and academics in New York.

Critics describe the decision as capitulation, saying that now, sources would find it difficult to believe that their identity could be protected.

At the centre of the controversy is magazine's White House correspondent Mathew Cooper who is facing a jail term for refusing to cooperate with a grand jury probing the leak of a CIA operative's identity.

Time's editor-in-chief Normal Pearlstine agreed to comply with a federal subpoena and surrender Cooper's notes and files relating to the story.

Pearlstine told the magazine that it was the most difficult decision he had made in 36 years in the news business. But critics say the investigative story writers would now have to bother about media companies in addition to government prosecutors.

The magazine said that in handing over the requested materials, Pearlstine and Time Inc. had made the argument that there was now no need for Cooper to testify because Cooper's files contain at least some of the information they had been seeking.

Cooper told Time magazine, "There's honour in obeying an order backed by the Supreme Court. There's honour in civil disobedience. I wish Time Inc. had tried to hold out longer against handing over papers that identified my sources. But there's surely principle in both decisions."

But the magazine quoted Reporters Committee for Freedom of Press executive director Lucy Dalglish as saying, "I can't think of a time when a news organisation has done something like this."

"'This is going to be open season on journalists," says Dalglish. "Litigators are out there thinking, why not subpoena them? I'm probably going to win."

Project for Excellence in Journalism director Tom Rosenstiel said Time Inc.'s decision signalled that sources -- and reporters -- would now have to worry about media companies in addition to government prosecutors. "How will sources believe that journalists can keep their word?"

The New York Times criticised Time Inc.'s decision to hand over material. Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said he was 'deeply disappointed'-- and said it backed its correspondent Judith Miller who is also under investigation in the case and refused to testify.

The courts have repeatedly denied Cooper and Miller privilege to protect their sources. After the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, Pearlstine said he concluded that Time Inc. had an obligation to follow the law. "When the courts rule that a citizen's obligation to testify before a grand jury takes precedence over the press's First Amendment right, to me, going against that finding would put us above the law."

Others have questioned whether Time Inc. was putting corporate priorities over journalistic ones.

Continued refusal to cooperate with the judge would have meant increased fines (well above the current $ 1,000-a-day penalty). Pearlstine vehemently dismissed the idea of any such calculation. "I am solely responsible for this decision, and the threat of fines never figured into my thinking."

He added that he did not consult with Time Inc. Chief Executive Officer Ann Moore or Time Warner CEO Richard Parsons.

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