The founder and the current proprietor of this blog have both made persuasive cases showing why “shield laws” for journalists are a poor idea. It’s no surprise, then, that such laws keep getting proposed in Congress, and with a new sheriff in town, the latest version may actually get enacted. The Free Flow of Information Act of 2009 passed the House on a voice vote last week, and it seems likely to sail through the Senate with similar ease and to be signed by President Obama. Judith Miller, who was jailed in 2005 for refusing to reveal her sources, writes in favor of the law here.
Beyond the question of whether a particular class of people should be granted special privileges, there’s a basic problem: How can that class be defined? What makes someone a journalist? The bill’s summary (click on “more”) defines a “covered person” (including corporations, I think) under its terms as somebody who:
regularly gathers, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes information concerning matters of public interest for dissemination to the public for a substantial portion of the person’s livelihood or substantial financial gain, including a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such a person. [emphasis added]
Even if this distinction would have made sense in the Front Page era, how will anyone be able to maintain it when virtually all news appears online (which should be in a month or two, the way things are going)? If a blogger reveals government malfeasance or corruption, does he deserve to protect his sources only if he makes money at it? Or suppose a sportswriter also keeps a part-time blog exposing graft in his local government. Is he considered one of the elect because he covers high-school football — and will he lose his exalted status if he switches jobs? Most of all, if source-protected scandalmongering is such a vitally critical part of democracy, why restrict it to a handful of government-certified professionals, instead of harnessing the energy of thousands of passionate activists?
If Congress wants to create an exemption from naming sources for anyone who exposes important information, fine. While there are arguments for and against that policy, at least it would be open to everybody on an equal basis. But if they persist with the notion of a small elite of certified professional news gatherers who are placed above the rest of us in return for enlightening the masses, not only is the very idea offensive, but they’re at least a decade out of date.