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The media and the Steven Hatfill/anthrax case

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By Michelle Malkin  •  February 20, 2008 01:41 PM

USA Today reports on new developments in Steven Hatfill’s civil lawsuit against the government for implicating him in the 2001 anthrax attacks. One of the newspaper’s reporters has been held in contempt for refusing to name her anonymous sources and another reporter for CBS faces similar charges:

A federal judge held a former USA TODAY reporter in contempt of court on Tuesday for failing to identify sources who named former Army scientist Steven Hatfill as a possible suspect in the 2001 anthrax attacks that killed five people.

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton said he would begin fining Toni Locy $500 per day, escalating to $5,000 per day, until she identifies the sources.

Hatfill’s lawyers asked that Locy — and not her former employer or others — be required to pay the fines.

The judge said he would consider postponing the penalty, however, to allow Locy and her lawyers to appeal the contempt ruling. Walton didn’t immediately decide whether Locy would be personally responsible for payment of the fines, if imposed.

At the same time, Walton delayed a decision on whether to hold former CBS reporter James Stewart in contempt for not disclosing sources for his reporting on the matter.

Hatfill, who was publicly identified in 2002 by then-attorney general John Ashcroft as a “person of interest” in the attacks, has never been charged. His lawyers have argued that news reports linking him to the federal investigation irreparably damaged his reputation.

“I don’t like to hold anyone in contempt,” Walton said. “I fully appreciate the importance of a free press. On the other hand, the media has to be responsible.”

The NYTimes also covers the story, with a quote from the judge that did not make it into the USA Today story. It’s very noteworthy and it’s buried at the bottom of the article:

Judge Walton said he would soon rule on whether his order would be delayed pending a probable appeal by Ms. Locy.

Ms. Locy and Mr. Stewart are the only journalists still facing contempt citations in the case. Because of procedural problems and other issues, the court previously threw out subpoenas seeking testimony from a number of other journalists, including Nicholas D. Kristof, a columnist for The New York Times, who first wrote in 2002 about a mysterious Army scientist he called Mr. Z, whom he later identified as Dr. Hatfill. A defamation suit against Mr. Kristof was dismissed last year, a decision now under appeal.

Judge Walton had some cautionary words for journalists on Tuesday, but he saved his harshest judgments for the unidentified officials who linked Dr. Hatfill to the anthrax investigation in the news media.

“There’s not a scintilla of evidence to suggest Dr. Hatfill had anything to do with it,” the judge said, yet the public notoriety has “destroyed his life.”

Flashback August 2007: Report: MSM Source Disclosure Ordered in Anthrax Suit

Flashback 2002: David Tell, “The Hunting of Steven Hatfill.”

How quickly we’ve forgotten…

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