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update on the balco case

FRONTLINE Editor's Note:

A viewer contacted FRONTLINE to complain about our "News War" segment on BALCO, the company at the center of a federal steroids case, and the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters, Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams, who revealed the names of the superstar athletes who were subpoenaed to the federal grand jury, as well as their testimony.

Dr. Elad Sharon, from Atlanta, writes, "I believe that I am generally a supporter of the rights afforded to journalists to protect their sources, but this is different. These reporters are not the saints that the FRONTLINE report makes them out to be."

The writer is not the only one who is critical of the reporters in the wake of the surprise admission by Troy Ellerman, a defense attorney in the BALCO case, that he leaked the star athletes' secret grand jury testimony about their use of steroids. Ellerman agreed to plead guilty to four felony counts, including obstruction of justice, because after he leaked the testimony, he had filed a motion to dismiss the charges against his client on the grounds that the ensuing publicity made a fair trial impossible. The motion was not granted, and his client eventually pleaded guilty.

Ellerman came forward on Feb. 14, 2007, just a few days before the broadcast of our "News War" program. With a documentary program like FRONTLINE, unlike a newspaper, it becomes more and more difficult to make changes to the program the closer you are to the airdate. We were able to report in the documentary the fact that Ellerman had stepped forward and that it now appears that the San Francisco Chronicle reporters will not face jail.

However, we still do not know exactly what the reporters and editors knew and when they knew it, nor do we know whether the reporters had more than one source. We would caution against premature judgments about whether the reporters' actions were right or wrong. In addition to the criticism noted above, others have written in support of what the reporters did.

At the time we interviewed the reporters, and to this day, neither of them will discuss the particulars of the case. Just after Ellerman came forward and the criticism of the reporters surfaced, we asked them for a comment. Lance Williams sent us the following:

"As we stated throughout this case, we cannot and will not answer questions related to confidential sources. We promised not to betray our sources, and we will keep our word. Assuredly, if the day comes when reporters cannot keep their promises, people who want the truth to be told will become more reticent to come forward. And, in the end, it is not journalism that will suffer, but rather the public access to important information."

It should be noted that our broadcast report did present former Assistant U.S. Attorney, Randall Eliason, who explained why secrecy is so important in grand jury testimony. If you read the outtakes of his interview, which we have published on our Web site, you will see that he raises the possibility that, from the prosecutor's perspective, more was involved than simply a grand jury leak to justify subpoenas to the Chronicle and its reporters. His comments to us were made before Ellerman came forward.

FRONTLINE is planning to monitor the continuing developments in the BALCO story and to post updates on our Web site. If the broadcast is repeated in a future season, we will revise the BALCO segment to take into account the dispute over how the reporters interacted with their sources.

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posted feb. 27, 2007

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