Jailed Journalist’s Story Resonates Today

With talk in Washington of “going after leakers” and the U.S. Attorney General refusing to deny that journalists could be charged with crimes for not revealing sources, the name Brad Stone popped into my head.

As an aspiring journalist 31 years ago, I remember it well. Stone was a WJBK-TV producer who spent two days in 1986 behind bars in Detroit for protecting his sources. But I couldn’t remember the details. So, I looked him up and found Stone, of all places, as an investigative producer at WSB-TV in Atlanta, where I once worked.

Stone was the first TV journalist put in jail for not revealing sources to the government. He told me that the first investigative story he ever produced, after moving from the “PM Magazine” show was about teen gangs and how they operated like businesses. He interviewed gang members and had the story shot in silhouette to protect identity. “I said I’ll never reveal your name no matter what. They basically made it clear that if I did, I’d be dead.”

Soon after, a Michigan State Trooper was killed off-duty. Police, without suspects, thought gang members might be involved, found out Stone was talking to some and wanted his sources. Officers showed up in the newsroom with subpoenas demanding the tapes. “Definitely I made a promise to these guys that I wouldn’t give them up,” so he took the tapes and gave them to his photographer, who hid them in his garage for years.

“I refused the answer the grand jury’s questions,” said Stone. “I got a little bit snarky” with investigators. A Wayne County judge sentenced him to four months in jail for contempt, which drew attention locally and nationally. Journalists from competing outlets protested in front of the jail. The anchors at the other two stations, Bill Bonds and Mort Crim, did on-air commentaries calling for Stone’s release. The story hit “Nightline” and the CBS Evening News. Under pressure, a federal appeals judge freed him after two days.

But the legal battle wasn’t over. His TV station paid more than $100,000 (in 1986 dollars) in legal fees. Five police cars showed up at his house with another subpoena. Years later, police finally made an arrest. “It was a multi-year ordeal that totally sucked up my time and affected my work…It was an unbelievable ordeal because they (the police) wouldn’t do their job.”

The particular challenge for Stone then was that in 1986, Michigan’s “shield law” was antiquated and did not protect broadcast journalists. After Stone’s situation, lawmakers updated it. Today, though, there is no federal shield law. A group of once-jailed journalists called “The Jailbirds,” including Stone, had pushed for such a law by speaking around the country. “They really had big hopes until recently, but under this administration, it’s not going to happen,” he said.

With 30 years of hindsight, would he do it all over again? “I would have had to,” he told me, “If there’s no protection for your source, it (the story) is just going to dry up.” Stone believes it’s as important for journalists as ever to verify sources but remember “the leakers are taking a risk” and that is why their identities must be protected when both journalist and source agree.

What would he like you to remember? “There’s an awful lot that goes on behind the scenes to get investigations on the air…Sometimes people really sacrifice a lot to do it…I love my job…I don’t think sometimes people appreciate how much goes into the stories they see on TV or read in the paper and what people go through.”

Many in the national media have worked very hard to earn their low trust scores. But many others are just trying to do their jobs, like Brad Stone was in 1986. Everyone whose livelihood depends on government respect for the First Amendment should remember his story and the public pressure that led to his release. It may be required again.