Recently, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff joined his colleagues from 32 other states in calling for a federal shield law to protect reporters who grant anonymity to confidential sources. At the time, the story didn't get a lot of play. The rights of reporters seldom generate a lot of public sympathy.

Which is why the timing of Deep Throat's decision to go public was so important.

Deep Throat, now better known as former FBI official W. Mark Felt, was a primary source for Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they uncovered the Watergate scandal. He passed along facts that, once published, forced the government to confront crimes and cover-ups in high places.

But he never would have passed along those facts without assurances that his name would be kept secret. The stakes were too high for an FBI official who could have been arrested and charged for what he was doing. However Felt obviously believed, with good reason, that corruption within the Nixon administration would have been quietly covered up forever unless it was aired in the press.

Given today's climate, in which a New York Times correspondent and a Time magazine reporter have been sentenced to 18 months in prison for refusing to violate promises of confidentiality, a modern-day Nixon might have seen to it that Woodward and Bernstein spent time in the pokey for their stories. And that clearly would have been bad for the republic.

A shield law would recognize the value that confidential sources serve in protecting the public. Reporters should have the right to keep these sources secret. They also, of course, should face the consequences if the sources they agree to protect turn out to be scoundrels. As Dan Rather learned recently, those consequences often come in the form of a loss of credibility, which is devastating to any journalist.

Shurtleff supports a law that would weigh the interests of the public against the government's perceived need to have a source revealed. That's a good general concept. Given the history of confidential sources, the government likely would have difficulty proving very often that its needs outweigh those served by a reporter keeping his or her sources secret.

Many critics believe reporters rely too much on confidential sources today, using them in even the most trivial stories and feeding a public distrust in the media. This may be true, but it is a debate that belongs in newsrooms and journalism schools.

Congress should recognize the value of a free press by passing a shield law. So, too, should Utah's Legislature.