Journalists risk a longer jail term than all those in the drug scandal they exposed, writes Lawrence Donegan in today’s Guardian
George Bush is on record boasting about how little he reads newspapers so Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, two San Francisco-based journalists who exposed the Balco scandal and with it the drug-taking activity of some of the US’s most famous athletes, were surprised and delighted to receive the president’s personal endorsement during a visit to the White House in the spring of 2005.
“We had been invited to a reception after receiving a journalism prize and had a chance to speak to him,” Fainaru-Wada recalls. “He said he was familiar with our work. We talked about steroids and congressional hearings on steroids that had been taking place. During the conversation, which lasted about four minutes, he told us we had performed a great public service – an irony, given how things have turned out. One of many ironies.”
Ironic, is one way of describing a journey that has taken Fainaru-Wada and Williams from the White House to the steps of prison, although Phil Bronstein, their editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, prefers to describe it as an attack on the right of journalists to do their job. “With cases like this the government is trying to turn the media into another arm of its investigative branch,” he says.
On February 12, California’s ninth circuit court will meet to hear an appeal against a lower court’s decision to jail the pair for up to 18 months. Their crime? Refusing to identify the source who leaking them “secret” court testimony implicating leading athletes in taking steroids supplied by Victor Conte, the founder of the Balco laboratory near San Francisco which became notorious as a clearing house for performance-enhancing substances. Conte subsequently served four months in prison, while three others were convicted for their part in the conspiracy. The British sprinter Dwain Chambers, who took Balco-supplied drugs, was banned from competition for two years.
Barry Bonds, America’s most famous baseball player, was a Balco customer, and he is the central character in Fainaru-Wada and Williams’ Game of Shadows, an award-winning book that alleges in forensic detail his drug-taking activities.
The Balco affair might have ended there but for the US Department of Justice’s (DoJ) seemingly maniacal desire to find out who had leaked the court documents to Fainaru-Wada and Williams. The two journalists were ordered to identify their sources. They refused and in September, pending next month’s appeal, were sentenced to up to 18 months. Irony piled upon irony – 18 months is longer than the combined prison sentences of all those convicted in the Balco case. Barry Bonds, meanwhile, is about to sign a new contract with the San Francisco Giants for a reported $20 million (£10m).
“There is no way I want to go to jail but there is absolutely no way I – we – will give up our sources. How would we ever be able to do our job again if we gave up our sources? Who would ever talk to us again?” says Fainaru-Wada. “If the government is successful in forcing journalists to testify then you are going to have a dramatic impact on the public’s ability to get information.”