The Senate is considering a so-called shield law that would protect journalists from having to reveal their confidential sources when they report on the news.
While on its face it may sound like a good idea, the only reason governments ever create shield laws is because they want to spell out circumstances under which they can go after people who spill the beans about government secrets and corruption.
Under the First Amendment, Americans have the right to say anything they like about any piece of news they want, so long as it doesn’t actually cross into the realm of treason or other criminal activity.
Most politicians realize they aren’t going to get anywhere trying to punish an outfit like the New York Times when it prints secret information leaked to them by a government official or other source.
But small time reporters, writers and bloggers? Well, that’s a different matter. Crooked politicians don’t want to have to put up with the insects of the journalism world, and they ultimately want to keep all the media in line.
That’s where shield laws like the proposal before the Senate come in. They allow petty tyrants to define who is and is not covered by the First Amendment. Courts tend to go along with this form of limiting freedom because it has the appearance of protecting speech while actually doing the opposite.
Old-time corporate media types are even happy to lend a hand in crafting these press limits, as they are doing with the Senate bill, particularly when it might hinder the competition. These days, that competition comes mostly from online media, which is precisely the group the proposed law likely won’t protect.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein said, “The fundamental issue behind this amendment is, should this privilege apply to anyone, to a 17-year-old who drops out of high school, buys a website for five dollars and starts a blog? Or should it apply to journalists, to reporters, who have bona fide credentials?”
“Bona fide credentials,” of course, means only those journalists Feinstein and other politicians approve of, most likely the ones who don’t ask tough questions.
Democrats Feinstein, Chuck Shumer and Dick Durbin have been pushing hard for this bill, but Republicans like Jeff Sessions are in on it, too. Sessions complained in committee that the definition of a journalist in the bill was too broad.
Online journalist Matt Drudge was irate about the bill moving forward through Congress. His outlet is one example of the media sites that would most likely be unprotected.
After calling Feinstein a “fascist,” Drudge tweeted, “Gov’t declaring who qualifies for freedom of press in digital age is ridiculous! It belongs to anyone for any reason. No amendment necessary.”
Drudge points out that a judge once ruled he was not a journalist or newsgatherer. “Millions of readers a day come for cooking recipes??!” he commented.
But that’s the real point of a shield law, to protect only those journalists who are allies of the party in power.