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Jailed for doing a job

Today I'm taking a break from the regular programming of this column. There will be time enough to get back to the goings-on downtown, at Gillette and Hancock and on the waterfront. But for now there's something I can't ignore: the terrible decision to put journalists in jail for doing our jobs.

We journalists are not the most sympathetic of characters. We like good stories, which more often than not means what went wrong, not what went right. We get things wrong, and sometimes we even hurt people. Our business is dominated by big companies interested in keeping their profits and their stock prices up. I started in this business as a 17-year-old office boy nearly four decades ago, and I have never seen such uncertainty about our future. ''Internet," ''craigslist," and ''free" are scary words in my world. Anyone who tells you they know where all this is going is lying or foolish.

But of this I am certain: Putting reporters in jail for reporting is wrong.

I don't know New York Times reporter Judith Miller, though she works for the same big media company I do. She is not the reporter many of us would have chosen to make the case for the imperative of protecting unnamed sources; she is a Pulitzer Prize winner who relied on unnamed sources for stories that helped the Bush administration make the bogus case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. And she got the story wrong.

The issue is not about whether journalists are above the law. The US Supreme Court has ruled on that. We aren't. But when the framers of the Constitution included the guarantee of a free press in the First Amendment, they understood well that the country is served best by a press that is protected from government intimidation. Watergate, of course, is the classic example of the use of unnamed sources. But so is the San Francisco Chronicle's excellent reporting on the use of steroids in baseball, as is the kind of meat-and-potatoes reporting that goes on at local newspapers all the time, from the zoning board to the corporate board.

The use of unnamed sources is not ideal, but often necessary. They can be abused, and there has been a considerable backlash against them lately, which is not a bad thing. But often they can be the only way to pry loose information. I do this every day. If my ability to promise a source confidentiality is compromised -- by a court or my organization's unwillingness to stand behind me -- that source goes away. And it will be the best sources with the best information -- those with the most to lose -- who go away first.

Reporters are not resources for the cops or the courts. We have a very different role, even if it is sometimes inconvenient, or even distasteful. Who should we trust to distinguish the ''bad" leakers from the ''good" leakers -- and just what is their agenda anyway? The Miller case is a criminal investigation, but why should aggrieved plaintiffs not have access to reporters' sources in civil cases, too?

This is one dangerous slippery slope -- one even too many in the media fail to recognize. Time magazine was dead wrong when it coughed up reporter Matthew Cooper's notes and sources for a prosecutor. Cooper was wrong when he agreed to testify to a grand jury because his source, under pressure, agreed to be identified. Time and Cooper should have both said no.

Obeying the law and doing the right thing are not always compatible. As a child, I watched black protesters being hauled away to jail for trespassing at the Woolworth's lunch counter in Charleston, S.C. The New York Times and Miller didn't set themselves above the law, but accepted the consequences for doing the right thing -- the only thing any of us could do.

Steve Bailey is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at bailey@globe.com or at 617-929-2902.

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