Outcome for Chronicle reporters means we all lose

Updated: September 23, 2006, 2:03 PM ET
By Wright Thompson | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams stood in front of the federal courthouse. Moments before, the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters had listened to a judge decide that they'd face jail time as a way of coercing their testimony.

They faced a wall of cameras and talked about the First Amendment and the importance of the press.

These words are being written in the sports department of the Chronicle, which opened its doors to out-of-town media in town for the legal proceedings. And there is a pall over the entire office.

A man stood near the back, anonymous. No one seemed to notice that Michael Rains, Barry Bonds' attorney, had come to see rock bottom for the two men most responsible for exposing his client's alleged steroid use. Rains had tried to listen for the verdict on the radio and, like a lot of people in town, had been curious if the reporters would be ordered to do time. To him, there is no difference between them and Greg Anderson, Bonds' trainer, who is being jailed for his refusal to testify in front of a grand jury.

"Contempt is contempt," Rains said. "There shouldn't be preferential treatment because they claim to have a higher calling in life."

That's the question posed often by non-journalist friends of mine: Why should these two men have more protection than Anderson? What is the difference?

There is one. There is a difference between a steroids dealer who is covering for his friend and two hardworking journalists. Look, Anderson might be a very nice man. He certainly is a loyal friend. But he's hardly an innocent bystander in all of this. He did time for dealing harmful performance-enhancing drugs.

Mark and Lance? Their biggest mistake, it seems, was doing too good a job of exposing steroid use. Sure, their work got them a book deal and accolades. But it also got them 18 months. I've won journalism awards. They ain't worth 18 months.

These reporters were assigned a story, did it well and, in the process, sparked a national debate that did big things like teach kids about the danger of steroids and small things like help force a sport to clean up its act. In the end, those are the only relevant facts to me. They provided a public service, worked long hours, endured criticism and dead ends, pursuing the truth.

Funny, isn't that what the government is supposed to do?

In the end, it seems that the only people with pure motives in this entire saga are Williams and Fainaru-Wada.

Bonds and the rest of the BALCO athletes allegedly took steroids to cheat the games they play. They're a part of this because of their egos.

The U.S. attorneys have become so obsessed with winning this case -- seems to be going around these days -- that they're missing the forest for the trees. For all the talk of wanting to expose those who abuse steroids, they asked for the stiffest possible penalty for two men who actually did the thing they so desperately want to do.

Anderson is sitting in jail to protect a friend. If he wasn't, if he could clear Bonds, don't you think he would have done so by now?

Then there are Mark and Lance. In the courtroom, Fainaru-Wada got up and made a speech to the court in his defense. He started speaking fast, and the judge asked him to slow down. His mother and wife were among the spectators in the crowd.

"I tend to speed up when I get nervous," he said.

He told about wanting to be like his big brother, Steve Fainaru, a Washington Post reporter who recently wrote a string of outstanding stories about Iraq.

The Fainaru brothers are out there on the front lines, telling stories that make a difference. Since the days of Thomas Paine, this country has been built on the foundation of a free press. It's why that amendment was the first one. There's a reason the founding fathers -- I'll take Thomas Jefferson over the two government suits in the courtroom on Thursday -- didn't make the First Amendment about protecting secret grand juries.

"My name is Mark Fainaru-Wada," he told a packed courtroom, "and I have been a journalist for most of my adult life. ... Like many of my colleagues today, I had seen the movie and read the book 'All The President's Men,' and it inspired me to become a reporter. Journalism seemed like an honorable, meaningful profession."

He talked of wanting to do something that would cause change, that would help people. He wasn't trying to win a case or a baseball game. Those two well-meaning government attorneys should have felt really low at that moment. They'd spent lots of money going to law school, working hard to get these jobs, and instead of helping make the world a better place, they were sending difference makers to jail.

"Nobody is above the law," U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White said.

The government wants to know who leaked secret grand jury testimony to the reporters, and they're going to the mattresses to find out. That's their right. The law says they can do that, though I believe the law is wrong. Right now, Congress is debating a federal shield bill that would protect journalists working on important stories. Write your congressman or congresswoman and let them know that you support it. One of those stories might be about a plant polluting your neighborhood or a corrupt school district that is supposed to be educating your children.

These words are being written in the sports department of the Chronicle, which opened its doors to out-of-town media in town for the legal proceedings. And there is a pall over the entire office. Not long ago, Williams walked out of the building, his attorney by his side, the lawyer's tie loosened.

It had been a long day, one in which the government won and we all lost.

Wright Thompson is a senior writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He can be reached at wrightespn@gmail.com

Wright Thompson | email

Senior Writer, ESPN The Magazine
Wright Thompson (@wrightthompson) is a senior writer for ESPN.com and The Magazine. He has been featured in seven editions of Best American Sports Writing and lives in Oxford, Mississippi.