A reporter is jailed for refusing to divulge a confidential source. [ Word of Honor credits: Dir: Mel Damski/ Karl Malden, Rue McClanahan, Ron Silver/ 93 min/ Drama/ Free Press as Hero]
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Judge: “No one’s trying to censor you!” Reporter: “Then what do you call this? You’re demanding that I reveal my source. In effect, you’re restraining me from collecting information. And you know as well as I do that if I can’t collect it, what have I got to publish? Nothing.” So replies the heroic newspaperman at the center of this story, in response to an attempt to force him to reveal the confidential source that he used to uncover a murder. The tension here is between immediate justice on the one hand (the prosecution wants the reporter’s informant to testify against the murderer), and the reporter’s right to protect the confidentiality of his sources on the other.
It all starts when the reporter gets a tip that leads to the body of a missing girl. Who gave the reporter the tip? He can’t say, even when directed to do so by the court, because he gave his “word of honor” to protect the anonymity of his source. After the court send him to prison for contempt, the question is—how long can he hold out?
Of course, confidential sources are vital to an effective free press. Nonetheless, courts sometimes force journalists to reveal them under threat of legal sanction. The importance of protecting the confidentiality of informants is demonstrated elsewhere in the film, when the reporter gets a tip on high-level corruption in the state government. His informant is reluctant to tell all. Can he be sure that his name will not be revealed? He can, because this reporter’s “word of honor” to protect his anonymity is demonstrably reliable.
This confidentiality premise is interesting, and Word of Honor makes the most of it. On the downside, the (good) reporter is opposed by his (bad) profit-conscious publisher, a needless dramatic concession to populism. It’s only a slight flaw, but it’s something to which libertarians will be sensitive. Karl Malden, in the leading role, makes a credible journalist-hero. This inspiring film will be of particular interest to First Amendment fans.