Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Bee and vice president of news for The McClatchy Co.

Viewpoints: Federal shield law would protect reporters with confidential sources

Published: Tuesday, May. 21, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 9A
Last Modified: Tuesday, May. 21, 2013 - 8:01 am

Good news: President Barack Obama asked Sen. Chuck Schumer to reintroduce the federal media shield law that failed in the Senate in 2009. His request follows the storm created by the Justice Department's overly broad and badly handled and executed subpoenas of the Associated Press phone records.

A robust shield law would protect journalists from fines and jail time when they refuse to give up confidential sources. It would give journalists the right to appeal to a federal judge who could then decide if the public's interest outweighs the interest of the government.

We will let others debate the timing of Obama's call for action on this much-too-long delayed piece of legislation. The why isn't important, the potential law is.

Make no mistake, this is not legislation cooked up in a liberal think tank. Two of the strongest supporters for the law a few years ago were from Indiana, former Sen. Richard Lugar and former congressman and now-Gov. Mike Pence. Both men have certifiably conservative credentials. As Pence put it, "It's one of those things that is a little counterintuitive for a cheerful right-winger to be involved in."

You can add South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham to the list. Last week he said he would co-sponsor the legislation. "As much as I hate y'all," he told reporters, "I think you should do your jobs. You should be able to be the annoyance you are."

Look at what's on the books already: 49 states and the District of Columbia recognize a reporter's privilege, either through state laws or judicial decisions (why not Wyoming?). More than 30 states have shield laws, one of the strongest being here in California, the original of which was passed in 1935 and strengthened at least twice since then.

It is kind of funny to watch the rush of Republicans, who normally have little use for the media, unless it's the Fox in their hen house, caressing the First Amendment as if it were the Second Amendment.

It was just a year or so ago that Texas Rep. Lamar Smith said that stopping leaks should be a major priority. "When national security secrets leak and become public knowledge," he wrote, "our people and our national interest are jeopardized." Last week Republican National Chairman Reince Priebus exclaimed that Attorney General Eric Holder had "trampled on the First Amendment" and called for his resignation.

Turn the calendar back a few pages. Remember when the New York Times reported on secret domestic eavesdropping and won a Pulitzer Prize for the stories? Vice President Dick Cheney called the Pulitzer a disgrace. Kentucky Sen. Jim Bunning accused the Times of treason, as did Rep. Peter King. A San Francisco talk show host and columnist Ann Coulter debated whether the executive editor of the Times, Bill Keller, should get the gas chamber or a firing squad if found guilty of treason. Just another day of frivolity on talk radio.

The Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times exposed the secret monitoring of international banking transactions.

The House voted to condemn the publication of classified information and a bill was introduced to criminalize the unauthorized disclosure of classified information, which would have been a first in our nation. Saner minds prevailed. Go back even further, and to another political party. President John Kennedy said, "A nation that is afraid to let its people judge the truth and falsehood in an open market is afraid of its people." But he opposed the Freedom of Information Act. Bill Moyers, who worked in the White House, said that President Lyndon Johnson "had to be dragged screaming into the signing ceremony" for the same act.

There is no question that those of us in the news media, past and present, have made mistakes, committing sins on occasion that have been corrosive to the public trust. Some acted out of arrogance, some out of lousy and lazy habits, some out of the rush to be first in a world when no one can be first for more than a few seconds. Sadly, as the instruments to spread information continue to proliferate, the sins will increase.

We have to take time to examine and re-examine ourselves, and clean up our own behavior when it crosses the line, especially in the overuse of anonymous sources. We should not automatically dismiss what our critics are saying, and at times we should remember that an act of contrition would do us lots of good.

Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Bee and vice president of news for The McClatchy Co.

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