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Sunday, October 8, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Steve Kelley

Chronicle reporters should be lauded, not sent to jail, for doing their jobs

Seattle Times staff columnist

Once upon a time the Bush administration seemed serious about finding and punishing the cheaters in baseball.

In a State of the Union address, President Bush even sandwiched his concerns about the abuse of steroids in the game inside all of his optimistic fluff about the direction of the Iraq war.

Former Attorney General John Ashcroft was so proud of the 42-count indictment he was handing out against individuals tied to San Francisco Bay-area laboratory BALCO that he made the announcement of those indictments on television.

Yes, this was the administration that was serious about bringing down the heavy hitters and heavy users who were sullying the good name of this great game.

Catching the steroid abusers was a big deal in the Bush administration. But then again, catching Osama bin Laden was important to this administration. And just as bin Laden remains at large, Jason Giambi remains in uniform, the New York Yankees' designated hitter in the American League Division Series against Detroit.

And his teammate Gary Sheffield, who, like Giambi was mentioned in the grand jury testimony against BALCO, played first base for the Yankees.

And San Francisco left fielder Barry Bonds just finished a season where he moved only 21 home runs behind career record-holder Hank Aaron.

But there is news to report in the war on steroids.

Maybe the Bush administration can't capture Bonds or bin Laden, but a judge Bush nominated has bagged Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada, the San Francisco Chronicle reporters who broke the story on BALCO, then properly refused to name their sources.

U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White has sentenced them to 18 months in jail because they have refused to divulge the name of the person (or persons) who leaked the grand-jury testimony in the BALCO investigation.

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If a Circuit Court of Appeals upholds White's ruling (the deadline for filing their appeal is Oct. 25) Williams and Fainaru-Wada will serve up to 18 months in jail, more time than all the drug makers, pushers and users in the BALCO case.

White is upholding the letter of the law, a law that says it is a crime to reveal grand-jury testimony. But historically the federal government hasn't gone after journalists unless it's a national security issue. And while Giambi looks menacing in the batter's box, he isn't a national security risk.

Instead of catching steroid cheats, this story has morphed into plugging leaks.

This case should be about the public's right to know. Not about the whistle-blowers. Who cares who the sources were?

But while the BALCO ballplayers play on, the messengers face jail time.

A non-partisan issue — the obvious abuse of steroids in baseball — has been turned into an attack on the First Amendment. Instead of jumping on the cheaters who have slimed the game, the administration has jumped on the only people it could get.

Like the old hidden-ball trick, the focus of this case has switched from BALCO and the athletes it has illegally aided, to another attempt at tightening control of the press and eroding more media freedoms.

The work that was done by Williams and Fainaru-Wada was heroic. They legally obtained information that exposed the fraud in baseball. They let us know that some of the record breakers also are law breakers. They exposed the BALCO bad guys.

They should be celebrated in every civics class in America. This is what an aggressive free press can do. They did what Bush said he wanted done.

Instead of being demonized, they should have champagne dumped on their heads like pennant winners. They put BALCO's Victor Conte in jail. They put Bonds' personal trainer, Greg Anderson in jail; he was released on a technicality Thursday.

This story is important to sports, but its ripple effect transcends the games.

If Williams and Fainaru-Wada go to jail, other reporters will be less inclined to tackle these stories. They'll be less likely to promise confidentiality to their sources, and those sources will dry up like the dirt around home plate.

Stories will go unreported. Government secrecy will continue unabated. Corruption will thrive.

A bipartisan shield law is before the Senate Judiciary Committee. It would allow reporters to keep the confidentiality of their sources. Thirty-one states and the District of Columbia already have such shield laws.

Reporters need this federal protection so that Williams and Fainaru-Wada can continue doing their brave work, exposing the riff-raff that is threatening baseball.

And reporters need this shield to protect themselves and their sources from an administration with a very different agenda. An administration that wants to leash the watchdogs.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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