The effort by federal prosecutors to discover who leaked grand jury transcripts in the BALCO steroids case left the San Francisco Chronicle and two of its reporters unscathed. They were able to protect their sources — even after a lawyer in the case admitted to leaking the documents — and stay out of prison. The Chronicle says the effect of the case on journalists, and their standing with the public and the courts, is a different, more complex story.
Court rulings in response to the Chronicle reporters’ defiance of federal grand jury subpoenas reflected a hardening judicial philosophy against media assertions of the right to keep sources confidential. A federal shield law that would allow journalists to withhold information about their sources faces uncertain prospects in Congress and a probable presidential veto if it passes. The public’s regard for journalists — whether covering drugs in sports or leaks of a CIA agent’s name — seems to be sinking. “These are tough times for the media,” said Lucy Dalglish of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which backed the Chronicle reporters. “We do not typically do a good enough job explaining First Amendment-based issues to the public.” Last week, Troy Ellerman, former attorney for two BALCO defendants, admitted showing secret grand jury transcripts to a Chronicle reporter on two occasions in 2004. Ellerman pleaded guilty to four felonies: two counts of contempt of court, for violating a judge’s order against disclosing the transcripts; one count of making a false declaration, a signed statement under oath that he had not been the leaker; and one count of obstruction of justice.