Media Shield Law In The Pipeline
Published: May 16th, 2008
By: Steven and Cokie Roberts

Media shield law in the pipeline

On the campaign trail, there is much talk of bipartisanship, but back on Capitol Hill, that spirit has vanished. The latest example: collapse of Senate negotiations to help homeowners threatened with foreclosure.

However, one important piece of legislation does command strong support across party lines: a federal shield law giving journalists greater protection from overzealous lawyers and prosecutors trying to pry loose their confidential sources. Congress should pass it, and quickly.

Forty-nine states (Wyoming is the exception) provide journalists with some form of safeguard, but none exists on the federal level. A measure closing that gap passed the House last fall, 398 to 21, and a similar bill cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee, 15 to 2. Sen. John McCain recently joined his Democratic rivals in supporting a shield law.

In a speech to the Associated Press annual meeting, McCain warned that such a law could give journalists “a license to do harm.” But the benefits outweigh the costs, he said, because such a measure was also “a license to do good, to disclose injustice and unlawfulness and inequities, and to encourage their swift correction.”

The Bush administration has staged a fierce counterattack against the proposal, and that’s no surprise. This White House has always embraced secrecy and rejected accountability. The last thing it wants is “swift correction” of its own unjust and unlawful actions.

Fortunately, many Republicans who value limited government and civil liberties are standing up to the administration. Take Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who asked during the floor debate: “What's a conservative like me doing passing a bill that helps reporters?” His answer: “The only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press.”

Passage of a shield law has taken on new urgency, and one reason is a growing number of court cases aimed at forcing reporters to spill their secrets. Former New York Times journalist Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to identify her sources, and now Toni Locy, a former staffer for USA Today, is facing financial ruin for the same reason.

A vindictive federal judge has slammed Locy with a fine of $5,000 a day, and barred anyone else from paying the debt, because she won’t tell him who provided information for stories she wrote about anthrax attacks against government officials in 2001.

True, journalists are not exactly filling up the nation’s jails, but examples like Miller and Locy are highly symbolic. They can scare sources into silence and reporters into timidity. As Clark Hoyt, public editor of the New York Times, wrote: “Breaking Toni Locy ... sends exactly the wrong signal in an era of increasing government secrecy.”

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