By Drew Olson Special to Published Sep 21, 2006 at 2:14 PM
While Giants slugger Barry Bonds prepared to play a game against the Brewers Thursday night at Miller Park, the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who wrote a book about him -- Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada -- found out they could go to jail for 18 months for refusing to testify about who provided them with secret grand jury testimony from Bonds and other athletes involved in the BALCO scandal.

Lawyers for the government asked U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White for the maximum 18-month term for the authors of "Game of Shadows." White, citing precedent, complied. The reporters have appealed, so the sentence was stayed.

Williams and Fainaru-Wada have said repeatedly that they would rather go to jail than comply with the grand jury subpoena and reveal their sources.

It's a noble stand, to be certain. But, to see these excellent reporters spend even a day behind bars would be a travesty..

White claimed that he had to move forward because a 1972 Supreme Court precedent states that no one -- including reporters -- can refuse to testify before a federal grand jury.

That's reasonable. But, what about the First Amendment? Journalists like Williams and Fainaru-Wada have a responsibility to inform the public. They certainly accomplished that, didn't they? Their book accomplished what an expensive federal investigation has not -- at least yet. It prompted a seismic shift in baseball's approach to the steroid problem and it created an awareness that has trickled to all levels of sport.

It was the kind of journalism that should win awards, not jail sentences.

By promising confidentiality, reporters are able to get information from sources that might not be revealed otherwise. This is a critical part of the free and robust press that the framers of the Constitution had in mind as they laid out the brilliant system of checks and balances that has sustained our democracy for more than two centuries and made the US a worldwide leader.

Laws were broken here. I can't deny that. But, they were broken by the party or parties that leaked documents to Williams and Fainaru-Wada. Going after the reporters is a "shoot the messenger" type of justice and it puts reporters in the difficult position of choosing between professional integrity and incarceration.

The promise of confidentiality between a reporter and a source is as sacred in journalism as the confidentiality that binds doctors and patients and lawyers and clients. The federal government should be enacting laws to shield those agreements, not puncture holes in them. More than 30 states have laws protecting reporters and their notes from subpoena. A cohesive national law would only help matters.

Many of the problems in this country can be traced to a lack of quality investigative reporting, not an overabundance.

If that argument isn't compelling to you, consider this question: Why is a man who quite likely took illegal performance-enhancing drugs and lied about it to a federal grand jury playing in baseball games when the men who brought his actions to light are facing the real possibility of prison time?
Drew Olson Special to

Host of “The Drew Olson Show,” which airs 1-3 p.m. weekdays on The Big 902. Sidekick on “The Mike Heller Show,” airing weekdays on The Big 920 and a statewide network including stations in Madison, Appleton and Wausau. Co-author of Bill Schroeder’s “If These Walls Could Talk: Milwaukee Brewers” on Triumph Books. Co-host of “Big 12 Sports Saturday,” which airs Saturdays during football season on WISN-12. Former senior editor at Former reporter at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.