After news surfaced that big-name professional athletes were abusing performance-enhancing drugs, the two San Francisco Chronicle journalists who broke the story found themselves forced to walk the delicate line between the power of the law and freedom of the press. At issue: whether or not they would be sent to jail for refusing to reveal confidential sources.
In 2003, the Chronicle's Mark Fainaru-Wada was covering a raid on a laboratory belonging to a local nutritional supplement maker -- the Bay Area Lab Cooperative, a.k.a. BALCO. A tipster told him it would turn into a steroids case implicating many prominent athletes, among them a local baseball hero: San Francisco's superstar Barry Bonds. Fainaru-Wada and Chronicle investigative reporter Lance Williams sensed a big story.
When Fainaru-Wada and Williams examined the publicly-available indictments handed down by the grand jury investigating the case, they expected some big names would be involved. They discovered the athletes' names had been redacted.
The reporters then turned to a confidential source who helped them gain access to transcripts of grand jury testimony, including that of Olympic Gold Medalist Tim Montgomery and baseball superstars Jason Giambi and Barry Bonds. Furthermore, Montgomery and Giambi admitted to using performance enhancing drugs. (Bonds, the Chronicle reported, "told a federal grand jury that he used a clear substance and a cream supplied by [BALCO] but he said he never thought they were steroids.") The reporters broke the story in December, 2004.
The Chronicle's series of investigative reports triggered action; Major League Baseball strengthened its policy on the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Williams and Fainaru-Wada went on to write a best-selling account of the scandal, Game of Shadows. At the 2005 White House Correspondents' Association annual dinner, the reporters were even congratulated by President George W. Bush, himself a former major league baseball team owner.
The federal government, meanwhile, was investigating the source of the leak of grand jury statements to the Chronicle. To their surprise, though they had broken no law nor disobeyed any court order, Williams and Fainaru-Wada were subpoenaed and ordered to identify their sources. While the national media followed the story, the reporters refused to give up any names, citing First Amendment protection as well as the need to honor the trust of their informants. They were held in contempt, and pending an appeal, they currently face 18 months in prison -- longer, ironically, than the term given to the drug suppliers convicted in the BALCO case.