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Making a Statement by Not Saying a Word

October 14, 1994|BILL BOYARSKY

Today, KNBC's Tracie Savage is supposed to appear in court in answer to a subpoena aimed at forcing her to disclose the source of one of her O.J. Simpson stories.

You remember the story. It's been one of the big media controversies of the Simpson trial. Savage reported last month that DNA tests at a Maryland laboratory indicated that Nicole Brown Simpson's blood was on a pair of socks found in Simpson's bedroom.

It was a fact that some of Simpson's socks were seized as evidence. And sources told The Times that the socks had been tested. But the tests were of a kind less discriminatory than the DNA variety, although they still can provide information about the possible source of a blood sample.

Ito blasted the report as erroneous, and when KNBC ran the report again, he threatened to limit television coverage of the trial. Savage later went on the air to say her sources provided her with some inaccurate information.

Her mistake, however, isn't why Savage is in court. Savage was subpoenaed because Simpson's lawyers want her to disclose the source on her story. They say that the Los Angeles Police Department leaked it to hurt Simpson. They've also subpoenaed Cmdr. David Gascon, the police spokesman.

So now Savage is caught up in a struggle bigger than her story--a battle not over her accuracy, but about a reporter's right to keep sources confidential, a right guaranteed since 1980 by the state Constitution.

It took a long time to win this constitutional guarantee. I thought of the effort when I heard of Savage's subpoena, and of a colleague who was deeply involved in it, the late Bill Farr.


Farr, who died in 1987, was a Times reporter who served 46 days in jail for contempt of court in 1972 rather than disclose the name of a confidential source in the biggest trial of that era, the Manson family trial.

He was an old-fashioned newspaperman who prowled the city in a baggy sport coat and slacks, pockets stuffed with notebooks, notes and newspaper clippings.

On his rounds in 1970, while he was actually still a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Farr obtained a scoop. He got his hands on a prospective witness's account of alleged plans by the Manson family to murder such show business personalities as Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor.

Judge Charles H. Older had imposed a gag order on attorneys, witnesses and court personnel, and felt someone had violated it by giving Farr the story. He demanded to know the name of the leaker. Farr refused, and the judge cited him for contempt and threw him in jail.

I remember visiting him in the Los Angeles County Jail. Dressed in prison blue, he was not happy about his confinement, even though the guards had promised him a television set for that particular weekend's big football games. He had no idea when he would be released by a judge who had vowed to keep him imprisoned until he talked.

Farr told me he wouldn't back down. An appellate court decision eventually prompted his release from jail, and the Manson case faded into history. But Farr continued to protect his source, never revealing the name. Years later, I tried to get him to do it. I thought the information was important to a political race I was covering--more important to the election than Farr keeping an old secret. Absolutely not, he said.


The stretch in jail changed Bill Farr's life.

Before he did time, Farr was like most of the reporters of his day, doing his work in a detached way, an observer, not a participant. After his release from jail, he became a crusader, starting from the moment he stepped into the afternoon sun and was greeted by several dozen reporters and photographers.

He gave countless speeches on behalf of reporters' rights, and particularly fought for a strengthening of something called the shield law, which was designed to protect news reporters from contempt of court citations if they reveal their sources.

Reporters get information from all sorts of people. Some risk their lives to speak to the press. Others, such as corporate and government whistleblowers, risk their jobs. To get the information, reporters must be able to promise such people anonymity.

The shield law had been on the books since 1935 and Farr invoked it when he was cited for contempt by Judge Older for his Manson story. But the judge disagreed. An appellate court upheld the judge. The court ruled that the shield law was an unconstitutional interference by the legislative branch "upon an inherent and vital power of the court to control its own proceedings and officers." Both the state and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Farr's appeal.

Farr became active in organizations such as the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society of Professional Journalists and Investigative Reporters and Editors. With his colleagues, he fought for a stronger shield law. In 1980, they succeeded with the passage of a ballot measure that made the shield law part of the state Constitution.

Now, no reporter, executive or other employee of a newspaper, magazine or other periodical publication, a press association or wire service or a radio or television station can be held in contempt for refusing to disclose the source of information for a story.

Because of the stronger shield, when Tracie Savage appears in court--even if her story contained mistakes--she can tell the defense attorneys she will remain silent about her sources, thanks to Bill Farr and others who fought alongside him.

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