Press shield law would end confusion
A free press in the United States protects is citizens from the misdeeds of government, and helps ensure domestic tranquility by holding the powerful accountable to the will of the electorate. Now, it is government’s turn to ensure the press is given some protections to continue this noble mission.
Currently, a Senate committee is considering whether to push forward with a bill, sponsored by Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.), that would extend federal shield protections to reporters dealing with confidential sources and information in pursuit of stories for the national good. This month’s jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller illustrates the need to clarify what type of information falls into this category.
Press shield laws exist in 31 states and the District of Columbia to stop government’s interference with the constitutional guaranty of freedom of the press. But no such protection exists on the a national level.
Pursuing stories that challenge the powerful is the most important function of the press. Reporters, and their sources, need to feel secure when passing information in confidence that sources will not be revealed. Although confidential sources are not preferred in most stories, they are invaluable in developing detailed information that can be verified through other means. One need only look at the case of Watergate and the reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Their use of the confidential sources revealed a culture in the Nixon administration of illegal manipulations of the electoral system. The country suffered a blow during Nixon’s impeachment, but the greater good was served.
Any reasonable press shield law would include language defining what type of information contributes to the common good, and what type of information threatens national security.
In the case of Miller, the identity of an undercover CIA operative was revealed to her in her capacity as a Times reporter. Although she and the paper did not pursue a story based on this leak, a federal shield law would have (hopefully) prevented the leak in the first place. It is the confusion of not knowing where sources have to draw the line that led to Miller being taken away in handcuffs.
The Bush administration has indicated a press shield law could compromise national security with sensitive, top secret information, passed into the private sector. But even when journalists are in possession of this information, they have shown throughout modern history a sensitivity to news value. For example, imbedded reporters in Iraq have had countless opportunities to reveal details about military missions there, but the interests of national security have thus far won out.
A free press in the United States is not asking for free reign on reporting classified information. We are just asking government to recognize our function in a free society.
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