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Reporter — An act for democracy: Time to yield on shield

The Reporter, Vacaville, Calif.
July 28, 2008

One of the cornerstones of democracy is a free and independent media. For a free press to act as a check on government, it is sometimes necessary to protect the relationship between journalists and their confidential sources.

The Reporter, Vacaville, Calif.
July 28, 2008

One of the cornerstones of democracy is a free and independent media. For a free press to act as a check on government, it is sometimes necessary to protect the relationship between journalists and their confidential sources.

That's why the U.S. Senate needs to approve a federal shield law for journalists. The House passed a similar bill last fall. The Senate could take up S. 2035, also known as The Free Flow of Information Act, this week.

The bill has bipartisan support, and even the California Legislature has called for it, thanks to Assemblywoman Noreen Evans, D-Solano, and bill co-author Assemblyman Mark Leno, D-San Francisco.

But the Bush administration is lobbying heavily against it.

“I've been around a while, and I've never seen such an avalanche of letters coordinated in such an unrealistic, emotional, unwarranted attack on a piece of legislation,” Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told The New York Times this past spring.

The Justice Department has argued that any media shield legislation would threaten national security and impede criminal investigations.

But Sen. Specter, the ranking Republican member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, disagrees. He recently wrote in a column for The Washington Post that “we must protect national security and preserve effective law enforcement. But a media shield law would not primarily be protection for journalists; it would be protection for the public and for our form of government.”

He's right, and more Republicans should see it that way, too. This shouldn't be a partisan issue at all. In fact, the House overwhelmingly approved its shield law bill with the help of conservatives such as Congressman Mike Pence of Indiana.

“What's a conservative like me doing passing a bill that helps reporters?” he asked during House debate last fall. Answering his own question, he responded, “The only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press.” Shielding reporters' confidential sources, he said, “is not about protecting reporters; it's about protecting the public's right to know.”

If sources know they're going to be protected, they may be more willing to expose wrongdoing in government and business. That often leads to information that people can use to make more informed decisions.

Over the years, major stories have been broken using anonymous sources and without the use of a federal shield law: the Pentagon Papers, Watergate, Enron.

But in recent years, more reporters are being questioned or subpoenaed about their confidential sources, and a small handful have been jailed. Throwing journalists in jail for refusing to reveal confidential sources hardly sends the right message to the world about our democracy.

Forty-nine states have laws that protect the often delicate relationship between journalists and sources. (What's Wyoming thinking?)

There should be similar protections at the federal level.

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