Volume 75, Number 8 | July 13- 20, 2005

Talking Point

Take my wife, please, to protect the First Amendment

By Ed Gold

It must have been one of his most poignant moments when his wife handed him her thin gold necklace with the ruby as she left the courtroom last week. She wouldn’t be wearing it for a while.

Jason Epstein, an undergraduate colleague of mine, may have longed for the days when he was a partner in irreverence on Columbia’s humor magazine. But now he watched as marshals led Judith Miller, the Times’ investigative reporter, from the courtroom, to be manacled, hands and feet, in keeping with a ritual which is barbaric when nonviolent offenders are involved. She was on her way to jail for possibly four months for refusing to break her word and reveal a news source, even though she hadn’t used the source for a story.

In this sad moment, Epstein could still show a sense of humor. If his wife had been given home detention for four months “it might not have been very good from my point of view,” he said with a laugh, The New York Times reported.

When I knew him at school, he was full of laughs. As a sophomore he already showed signs of publishing superiority. He was one of four members of the managing board of Jester, which spoofed anyone and anything that appeared pretentious, complacent or pompous, publishing their magazine at Cocce Press on Barrow St.

Epstein and his clan operated from an office down the hall from mine. When I was editor of the college newspaper, Spectator, he held the title of “chief researcher” for Jester, which made him sound like a C.I.A. agent, since Jester conspicuously eschewed research. Politicians were fair game, so Jester went after the then-New York Governor Tom Dewey, who intended to be president, and dressed him up as Santa Claus. My paper was not immune from the Jester harpoon. The humorists put out a special issue of “Spectater” exposing dangerous radioactive mineral deposits under a campus ball field.

And Epstein & Co. waxed erotic with shapely bodies galore. One famous cover showed an excited fellow with a butterfly net trying to catch a bosomy beauty.

A great deal has happened to Epstein since those lighthearted days at Columbia. Shortly after graduation he was to prove himself something of a publishing genius. At the age of 22, working for Doubleday, he invented Anchor Books, a quality paperback line that flourishes to this day as he approaches his mid-70s. Later, he would be a founder of the New York Review of Books and Library of America.

And he still has responsibilities at Random House where he works with such outspoken and provocative writers as Norman Mailer and Jane Jacobs.

Those of us who shared the writing chores on the fourth floor of John Jay Hall, the extracurricular heaven, were all passionate about the First Amendment and its free press guarantee.

Last week, Epstein was quoted saying about his wife’s position: “She doesn’t want to be a martyr. She just doesn’t want to reveal her sources.”

It’s the position most working journalists have taken over the years. We’re called the Fourth Estate because we play a special role in a democratic society and we deserve special protection.

Bill Keller, the Times’s editor, put it correctly when he said the Miller jailing would “serve future coverups of information that happen in the recesses of government and other powerful institutions.”

In my various writing venues, whether as reporter, columnist, editor or publisher, I have been asked on occasion: “Who told you that?” If I had taken information in confidence, I would say so. I was lucky and never had to face a Judith Miller decision. But most states do have some sort of shield law to protect source confidentiality and a federal shield law is needed, especially as we try to survive the most secretive national administration in our history. Madison had it right: A free press can be terribly aggravating, but it remains essential.

Parenthetically, I should note that a story is better if your sources can be quoted, and I don’t consider some of the gossipists on the Internet members of the Fourth Estate.

On occasion, a nervous source who insists on anonymity can regret doing so. I once did a business story with a buyer at a major department store who had had a spectacularly successful sale. I wanted to explain how it had been done, but he would only let me print it without attribution. Shortly after the story appeared, he received a copy of it from his boss who attached a note telling him he might learn something from it!

In the light of last week’s courtroom drama, my last memory of Epstein at Columbia is somewhat ironic. In the school yearbook, the Jester editor is seen pouring a bucket of water down on an unsuspecting Epstein. But a colleague gives Epstein protection with an umbrella.

There was no umbrella for Epstein as his wife handed over her necklace. But perhaps in a more important way, he is protected by the conviction that his wife did the right thing, and that her sacrifice protects all of us who believe in the First Amendment.

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