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Tabloid Justice

Clint Reilly

Rather than charging Barry Bonds with using steroids, the prosecutor indicted Bonds for lying to a Federal Grand Jury. Once again, an expensive, painfully drawn out investigation by a US Attorney has led to a celebrity indictment on tangential charges, not the substantive issue. And questionable journalistic tactics by the San Francisco Chronicle has fed speculation that the troubled newspaper is more interested in a journalistic prize than steroids – or justice.

Earlier this year, a protracted investigation of the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA operative by Bush Administration officials resulted in a similar indictment. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was charged and ultimately convicted – not of leaking Plame’s name to reporters – but of lying to a grand jury. Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald produced a conviction on perjury – not a definitive resolution of the central issue – who leaked Valerie Plame’s identity to the press?

New York Times Reporter Judith Miller was jailed for refusing to testify about a conversation she had with Mr. Libby – Vice President Dick Cheney’s Chief of Staff – which might have contained a leak of Valerie Plame’s identity. However, long before her testimony, Libby had given her a written release to testify about their conversation. Therefore, Miller’s 85-day prison ordeal for refusing to reveal a confidential conversation was an unnecessary drama. After her embarrassing testimony, Miller was fired by The New York Times. Judith Miller had earlier written The New York Time’s stories detailing Saddam Hussein’s harboring Weapons of Mass Destruction. These incorrect stories, based on leaks from the Bush Administration, were unfortunately used to justify the US Invasion of Iraq.

The Barry Bonds indictment is the culmination of a five-year investigation. There are similarities to the Libby case. Chronicle reporter, Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, were threatened with jail for not revealing the source of illegally leaked Grand Jury documents that were the cornerstone of their story about steroid use by professional ballplayers including Bonds. Williams and Fainaru-Wada and The Chronicle knowingly printed illegally leaked documents. Subsequently, it was revealed that the source of the documents was defense lawyer Troy Ellerman who was disbarred, indicted, and sentenced to two and a half years in federal prison for violating laws against leaked testimony. The Chronicle launched a very public lobbying campaign for a Shield Law to save its reporters from jail for refusing to reveal their tainted source. Washington politicians – always intimidated by the press – expressed support. The Chronicle reporters, who conspired to break the law with Troy Ellerman, walked away. Victor Conte, owner of Balco, the supposed supplier of steroids at the center of the scandal, served only four months in prison. His co-worker, James Valente, served three months. Greg Anderson, Bonds’s trainer, served three months. The toughest sentence in the steroids case to date was given to an attorney who conspired with the San Francisco Chronicle to break the law – not a steroid provider or an athlete-user of steroids.

A Saturday November 17, New York Times story on the indictment began “Why now?” Bonds’s grand jury testimony took place in 2003 – four years ago. The indictment was suspiciously announced months after the departure of longtime US Attorney Kevin Ryan, who had quarterbacked the investigation and did not issue an indictment, and four hours before the appointment of new US Attorney Joseph Russoniello. Justice Department spokespersons in Washington seemed surprised by the indictment.

Steroids are a legitimate line of journalistic and legal inquiry. But we can’t demand that athletes play by the rules while prosecutors and journalists bend them.

Do the means justify the ends? It is only a short distance from tabloid journalism to tabloid prosecution.

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