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Courier-Journal — Lawmakers working to protect the public's information shield

The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky.
Aug. 1, 2007

The need to protect reporters, as they go about the business of gathering information that readers and viewers need, is clear -- not just to members of any one political party and not just to those in one ideological camp.

The Courier-Journal, Louisville, Ky.
Aug. 1, 2007

The need to protect reporters, as they go about the business of gathering information that readers and viewers need, is clear -- not just to members of any one political party and not just to those in one ideological camp.

That's obvious when you look at the list of those who are pushing the "Free Flow of Information Act of 2007."

Among the primary sponsors of this important legislation are Hoosier conservative Mike Pence and Louisville liberal John Yarmuth.

Pence, who lives up the road in Columbus, Ind., describes himself as "a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order." Yarmuth, who wields a respectable stick in the Germantown Dainty Contest, also knows how to use a pen and a microphone, as he proved during a long career as liberal-progressive columnist and commentator.

The House Judiciary Committee is supposed to take up the so-called "federal reporters' shield law" today. If the bill is reported out favorably, you can thank those who have created the need, by putting journalists under the legal gun.

As the American Society of Newspaper Editors notes, "More than 30 reporters have been subpoenaed or questioned about their confidential sources, their notes and their work product over the last few years, in criminal and civil cases in federal court."

You ask, "So what?"

You demand, "What does that have to do with me?"

Let me ask you a couple of questions:

Did you care when The Washington Post reported the miserable conditions in which some of our wounded soldiers were being kept?

Did you care about the inhumane and scandalous treatment of prisoners, which was being conducted in your name, in Iraq?

Did you care about the allegations that Barry Bonds, who as I write is ready to break one of the most sacred records in baseball, used performance-enhancing drugs?

ASNE points out, "Groundbreaking stories, such as conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and baseball steroid abuse would not have been possible without confidential sources." And such sources typically will not come forward if they think they can be identified.

The use of confidential sources can be abused, and we try very hard to avoid them. But they have been essential to important journalistic work, most famously in The Washington Post's coverage of Watergate.

You may not consider Judith Miller, whose reporting in The New York Times helped mislead the country into the Iraq war, the best champion for confidential sources. But she said some important things in 2005, while testifying in favor of an earlier version of the Free Flow of Information Act:

"Confidential sources are the life's blood of journalism. Without them, whether they are in government, large or small companies, or in non-profit organizations, people like me would be out of business. As I painfully learned while covering intelligence estimates of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction, we are only as good as our sources. If they are wrong, we will be wrong. And a source's confidence that we will not divulge their identity is crucial to his or her readiness to come to us with allegations of fraud or abuse or other wrongdoing, or even a dissenting view about government policy or business practices that the American public may need to know."

This year's version of the "reporter's shield" bill, sponsored not just by Yarmuth and Pence but by the highly respected Sen. Dick Lugar, R-Ind., as well as thoughtful lawmakers from both parties, does not give reporters an open-ended grant of immunity from questioning. It contains exceptions that would allow disclosure of sources in order to prevent "imminent and actual harm" to nation security, to prevent "imminent death or significant bodily harm," or to identify someone who illegally has revealed important trade secrets or certain financial or medical information.

Kentucky and Indiana already have strong reporter shield laws, and they have worked well, resulting in journalism that has made a difference for readers in both states. A federal law of that kind would be another step in the direction of open government.

David Hawpe's columns appear Wednesdays and Sundays in the Community Forum.

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