We need a federal shield law

John Costa / The Bulletin /


Published Jul 7, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

Why the American Society of Newspaper Editors would meet in late June in Washington, D.C., rather than its usual cherry blossom meeting in early to mid-spring is beyond me.

Perhaps it was to drive the editors indoors to the committee meetings.

There is nothing like upper 90s with humidity to match to get you into air conditioning.

But in this case, it was well worth it.

Among the presentations exploring all the permutations of print and digital news, there was a critical session on the protection of journalists and their sources from government intimidation and misuse.

The timing couldn't be better.

Be it Fox News or The Associated Press, the Obama administration has gone to great lengths, whether seizing phone records or trying to identify sources, to make life difficult for journalists who report on government activities in critical, revelatory terms.

That's the polite way to summarize the view of the panelists, who included moderator Marty Barron, executive editor of The Washington Post; James Rosen, Fox News chief Washington correspondent; and Kathleen Carroll, Associated Press executive editor.

A fourth panel member was Thomas Drake, a National Security Agency senior analyst and whistle-blower.

Their conclusion was consistent: journalists — and whistle-blowers — have never been under the extent and intensity of pressure that the current administration has orchestrated. And never has there been a louder cry for a federal shield law to protect journalists from coughing up their sources to embarrassed and retributive public officials.

Forty states, including Oregon, have such laws, which offer qualified protections for journalists, who depend on sources to paint the unvarnished truth of government activities.

Not that sources can't be misused — but the public ought to know that without such information, the flacks and spin merchants working for government officials will paint their own portrait of themselves.

Just imagine what your view of Richard Nixon and Watergate would have been if White House press secretary Ron Ziegler — and not Woodward, Bernstein, Deep Throat and The Washington Post — had been the source of your information.

It's important to keep in mind that a federal shield law offers a qualified protection, limiting but not excluding journalists' cooperation in the toughest situations and as a last resort.

But at least it would be something more than journalists have now.

One of the nagging questions concerning such legislation is whom it protects.

The language of the legislation appears to bend toward those working for or under the auspices of mainstream or established media, television, radio or online operations.

It's a devilish question, and it raises concerns with many thoughtful journalists.

Many of my colleagues fear that whatever protection our sourced-based activities may gain is outweighed by the risk of a government defining who a journalist is.

Others argue that setting qualifications for the conduct of the profession, which is already done in any number of laws or court rulings involving libel, invasions of privacy and false light, etc., is not the same as defining a journalist.

What is not debatable is that the threat from federal intrusion has become a serious reality, which makes the gain from having even a qualified federal shield law to limit a rambunctious and ambitious federal prosecutor worth the somewhat speculative downside of defining a journalist.

Whatever the definition, a government that can squelch sources, intimidate accurate reporting and, therefore, write its own record, is a danger to the Founders' concept of democracy.

An often-cited observation on this chilling environment may never be truer:

“Democracy dies in the dark.”