EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 17, 2006

Shame of Shadows:Reporters getting a raw deal

Alan Siegel

Lance Williams isn't laughing much these days. The prospect of 18 months in prison will do that to you.

"I try to find something funny in almost everything," Williams said by phone last week. "But I can't find the humor in going to jail."

Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada are the co-authors of "Game of Shadows," the best-selling book investigating the Bay Area Laboratory Co-operative. BALCO, as it's now known, allegedly supplied professional athletes - including Barry Bonds and Jason Giambi - with performance enhancing drugs for years.

But because the pair of San Francisco Chronicle reporters refused to reveal who leaked sealed BALCO grand jury testimony to them, a federal judge has sentenced them to 18 months in prison. Pending appeals, their fate won't be decided for months.

"What would you do?" my girlfriend asked me the other day.

And I thought squeezing a good quote out of a high school football coach was tough.

"Really," she said, "What would you do?"

I did a lousy job explaining why not revealing their sources was the right choice, but Williams made it simple.

"We're not trying to dramatize this," he said. "It's not the worst thing that's happened to anybody. It shouldn't be that Mark and I are in a jam. It's that the balance of government is tilting and that isn't going to help (America)."

Remember Greg Anderson, Barry Bonds' trainer and reputed steroid-distributor? He's a free man today.

"The lead dope dealer serves four months in prison," Williams said, "and we're facing 18 months."

Sure, they've written a best-seller, but they know the situation is bigger than book royalties. If they're sent to prison, it could send all whistle blowers into permanent hibernation.

Williams and Fainaru-Wada have found support in some unlikely places.

Mark Corallo, former press secretary for hard-line Attorney General John Ashcroft, said he never would have subpoenaed the two writers.

They've also been flooded with calls, letters and e-mails from other journalists, and people associated with high school and college athletics, but few from athletes themselves.

It's not exactly a shocking development.

"Pro athletes have their own issues," he said. "The other thing is, this holds pro sports up in a bad light. Unfortunately, it's the way it goes."

Williams has been a journalist in the Bay Area since 1973, and even though the BALCO investigation was his first sports-related project, he's not exactly a rookie. He's more like a veteran football player changing positions before the Super Bowl.

"I know that people in our country care deeply about sports," he said. "But I'd never experienced what it was like to have a story resonate ... When you're doing investigative reporting or political corruption issues, you might get a reaction regionally or locally, but I've never seen anything like this."

And the story isn't dead yet. Williams and Fainaru-Wada plan on covering BALCO throughout their own proceedings.

"It's certainly deeply discouraging," he said of his current situation. "But I also realize that it's important to stand up for the first amendment. I'm an optimistic person. I think as a country, we're going to solve the problem."

He hopes that in the near future, the government will pass a bipartisan shield law. It would, in effect, prevent judges from asking reporters to give up their sources.

Until then, Williams and Fainaru-Wada will be in limbo or, worse, in prison.

"There's nothing funny about this," he said. "It's very discouraging to our country."