The 'Libby Effect': Can you still keep your sources secret?

At this writing, the jury has yet to hand down a verdict in the trial of former White House aide Lewis “Scooter” Libby on charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. [Update: Guilty on four of five counts — Ed.] Whatever the verdict, one thing is clear, according Amy Ginensky, a partner at the Philadelphia law firm of Pepper, Hamilton, LLP who has tried many First Amendment cases: the Libby trial is “a subject that all of us who have any thing to do with the media need to do a lot of thinking about.”

Certainly, a lot of people are thinking about it, as evidenced, for example, by the discussion generated by Scooter Libby segment of the PBS Frontline series, News War.

OJR sat down with Ginensky to find out why she says that the Libby trial, “has changed journalism as we know it.”

OJR: You’ve said that “After this trial, even if privilege can be protected in federal and state courts, many may not perceive it.” What did you mean by that?

Ginensky: We all grew up in the “Deep Throat” era and thought that everything is protected and confidential. What we’re going to see, and I’ve already seen it myself, is lawyers – both on the civil and criminal side — thinking, ‘Oh reporters have to testify – that’s what the Libby case is all about. And it’s obvious that while there may be certain instances in certain courts where reporters have to testify, but in many states there are strong protections… shield law or common law protections. In federal courts there are still some protections, and some federal courts have been stronger than the DC court was.

So, I think lawyers’ instincts are going to be to serve a subpoena whenever they think journalists have information about anything – any information, whether or not it’s been published, whether or not it’s confidential, or whatever, they’re going to try to get reporters to testify.

Then I think you’re going to face the fact that sources have seen this group of reporters walk into the Libby trial and testify and be the number one and two and three witnesses against Scooter Libby. That is a position that I think reporters have always tried to avoid, to be a witness against people who are talking to you.

In the Justice Department, I think there has been a great reluctance to serve subpoenas on reporters – I think that’s changing. But… the fact that people think that the protections have been undone [doesn’t mean] that they have been undone.

We need to fight against that to the extent possible.

OJR: One of the extraordinary things about this case is that you have the White House and the prosecutor using the unprecedented tactic of getting sources to sign confidentiality waivers.

Ginensky: It is unprecedented. But what I have argued before is that the privilege is not the source’s; the privilege is the reporter’s. It doesn’t matter if my source is willing to speak, if I’m a reporter. It’s whether or not I will waive the privilege.

And I, as a journalist, have good reasons not to want to waive the privilege in addition to the source’s reasons, because it will chill the next source. I have won on that argument in both Federal and state courts before. Obviously this argument must have been made and did not work in [the Libby] case. If sources believe that their employers can get these waivers out of them, then they’re probably not going to be whistleblowers.

It seems to me that in the face of an attack like this, what we ought to do is to stand up and try to protect [reporters’ privilege] as much as possible, rather than lay down.

OJR: You say that there ought to be a conversation in every newsroom about the rules for granting confidentiality to a source. It’s been suggested that the practice of granting confidentiality has changed over the years from being an incentive that reporters sometimes use to coax reluctant interview subjects to being a privilege that sources expect and use to put out information for their own purposes.

Ginensky: I always understood, both from the dealings with journalists, and also from arguments that I’ve made in court, that it’s…used almost as a matter of last resort. We try to get people on the record, and not just take information off the record, because there are recognized dangers with this type of information.

And then, you may find yourself in a situation like Judith Miller, where you haven’t even published [your information] and you’re faced with having to try to protect somebody who you’ve really never tried to get on the record, and you put yourself, I think, in a bad situation.

OJR: This all comes about when the traditional interpretation of the Branzburg case is being challenged.

Ginensky: We’ve argued for years that the Branzburg case does not mean that there is no protection. But more and more courts – federal courts have found to the contrary. All the efforts to get federal shield laws are really important.

OJR: You’ve also suggested that reporters need to think about their methods and frequency of note-taking.

Ginensky: I think that each journalist needs to think about when they’re taking notes. There are journalists who always take notes – whether it’s on the record or off the record, and then they make a note afterward whether the conversation is on the record. And then they keep the notes, pretty much forever, and then they’ll be like Judy Miller – they’ll find them under desks, in shopping bags.

And that’s not a place you really want to be, because then you’ll have those notes being used to go against the memory of your source… Most sources are not likely to have that accurate a recollection, not because of anything nefarious, but because people just don’t recall the details of conversations. And given any time passage, most of us can’t recall. And so we have the journalists’ notes being used to impeach our source, and that’s a really terrible picture to put out there, and a really terrible position to put your source in.

So I think that people need to think initially, “Am I going to make notes for this conversation with this confidential source where there’s a likelihood I might end up in a battle about my notes?” Maybe you don’t make notes at all. Once you get a subpoena, you can’t get rid of your notes – that’s the destruction of evidence. So you have to think about it, I think, right from the beginning.

OJR: Many journalists hold on to their notes both in case there are questions, and because they might want to re-use the research for another project.

Ginensky: Right. And I’m somebody who defends a lot of libel lawsuits, and sometimes notes can be helpful. Most of the time, they could be helpful, but you’ve got to weigh the possibility of getting a libel lawsuit now against the possibility of a subpoena, and be thinking about these things ahead of time. You can never predict where your libel lawsuit is going to come from, nor predict where every subpoena is going to come from.

But in both instances, you can make some calculated decisions. I mean, I have been more surprised about libel lawsuits, but subpoenas – there are areas where people probably should think about whether they’re likely to get a subpoena. If you’re dealing with a whistleblower in a government agency, think about it ahead of time.

OJR: That gets pretty tricky when it comes to things like e-mail.

Ginensky: Yes, you have to worry about e-mails for your subpoenas; you also have to worry about your phone records, because there have been subpoenas to phone companies where you don’t even have control. Then, the fact that there is this phone record with you and this confidential source could reveal the confidential source. So you might want to think about some way to communicate other than the telephone. Hopefully, it won’t involve getting in the basement or parking garage like Deep Throat!

OJR: You’ve said the credentialing of bloggers to cover this trial is also significant.

Ginensky: The credentialing of bloggers is significant because it places them on a similar level as mainstream journalists. However, this event also raises some questions about the treatment of bloggers. For example, if they are treated as journalists, then will the standard of conduct practices that applies to journalists be applied to them as well in relation to liability issues? If you are considered a journalist, then you’re going to be held to a journalist’s standard of care in a libel lawsuit. I would suspect not all bloggers know much about the standard of care of how other journalists work. On the other hand, if they are considered journalists under shield laws, then, to the extent that they have confidential sources and the statutes that protect them, that’s a good thing.

OJR: Given what you’re saying, anyone who’s going to do journalism really has to have access to quality legal advice. When it comes to solo journalists, bloggers and small publishers, you’re not available.

Ginensky: Right, and I don’t have an answer for that. I would think for a lot of bloggers, it means getting insurance. I worry about risk, and I can’t say I have an answer for that. In terms of how they protect themselves, there should be a lot of reading and discussion. I would think that journalists who are in newsrooms. If they say to somebody, “I’ll protect you and give you confidentiality,” are they really willing to go to jail for that person? That’s a real problem, I would imagine.”

Whatever the verdict, we’ve all been sentenced to deal with a new with a new way of thinking about this, and the recognition that sources are going to think of it differently, and courts of going to think of it differently. In my view, we shouldn’t give up, but we should be proactive in the steps we take.

About Kim Pearson

I teach writing for journalism and interactive multimedia at The College of New Jersey. I also blog at Professor Kim's News Notes ( and BlogHer ( for which I serve as a contributing editor. My current interests are in coming up with new models for interactive storytelling, including the possibilities that might derive from employing videogame narrative conventions into news presentation. I have been reading OJR with enthusiasm since its inception, and I look forward to participating more fully in the dialogue here.