PROTECTING SOURCES IN CLEVELAND….Here is Cleveland Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton at the tail end of a column written on June 30:

As I write this, two stories of profound importance languish in our hands. The public would be well served to know them, but both are based on documents leaked to us by people who would face deep trouble for having leaked them.

Publishing the stories would almost certainly lead to a leak investigation and the ultimate choice: talk or go to jail.

Because talking isn’t an option and jail is too high a price to pay, these two stories will go untold for now.

Unfortunately, Clifton buried the lead and no one noticed what he had said. Yesterday, Editor & Publisher picked up on it and Clifton elaborated:

Plain Dealer Editor Doug Clifton says the Cleveland daily is not reporting two major investigative stories of “profound importance” because they are based on illegally leaked documents ? and the paper fears the consequences faced now by jailed New York Times reporter Judith Miller.

….”The reporters say, ‘Well, we’re willing to go to jail, and I’m willing to go to jail if it gets laid on me,’” Clifton added, “but the newspaper isn’t willing to go to jail. That’s what the lawyers have told us. So this is a Time Inc. sort of situation.”

….Clifton declined to characterize the two stories, saying only they were based on material that was illegally leaked.

….”Some people might argue that you’re being chicken-shit,” Clifton said. “Well, I, I can respect that,” he said, his voice trailing off.

The Plain Dealer’s lawyers apparently feel this way even though Ohio has a reporter shield law on its books. On the other hand, it’s worth noting that Ohio newspaper lawyers also have bleak memories of the infamous Cincinnati Enquirer/Chiquita banana fiasco, in which an Enquirer reporter broke into Chiquita’s voicemail system and then wrote a sensational expose that subsequently resulted in the Enquirer printing a front page retraction and paying Chiquita a $14 million settlement. That’s the kind of thing that focuses a corporate lawyer’s mind even if it’s not directly relevant to the situation at hand.

In any case, this is a good example of why I support stronger shield laws for reporters. I just don’t see any way to distinguish “good” leaks from “bad” leaks, and even though it’s arguable that Judith Miller is being jailed for a bad leak, the inevitable result is going to be the loss of plenty of good leaks as well.

And that’s a shame, because I for one would like to see the Plain Dealer’s documents. On the other hand, I’ll bet there are plenty of politicos in Columbus breathing sighs of relief over this.