John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, broke with his party this week and backed a federal law to protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources in court. Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama also support the law, the Free Flow of Information Act, but Bush administration officials say journalists should be compelled to reveal their sources because leaks can threaten national security. (The New York Sun)
What the commentators said
McCain’s support gave an unexpected boost to supporters of the shield law, said Robert Novak in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Considering McCain’s hard line on national security,” the best the bill’s sponsors were hoping for was “neutrality.” It has been 30 years since Congress considered such a law, but the question of how far the government should be able to go in “the pursuit of terrorists” is clearly changing the conversation about journalists’ rights.
“The law is needed, quite simply, to ensure that reporters can keep watch on government and other powerful interests,” said USA Today in an editorial. “To do that, reporters sometimes need to promise confidentiality to whistle-blowers and others with valuable information; those sources, in turn, need to be able to speak without fear of reprisal.” Sadly, that’s hard to do under the Bush administration—a judge has “outrageously” ordered a former USA Today reporter to reveal her sources in the anthrax-attack investigation or pay $45,000 in fines, with no help from her former employer.
This shield law probably wouldn’t have protected journalists targeted recently, said Jack Shafer in Slate, such as former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent time in jail after refusing to talk to the grand jury looking into who told reporters Valerie Plame was a CIA operative. The proposed law probably would not have prevented any of the recent cases in which journalists got in trouble with the courts, and Department of Justice guidelines dating to the Nixon administration give prosecutors pause by giving murky rules on when demanding reporters’ sources is OK. “A federal shield law would reduce this helpful murk by legally codifying the process of subpoenaing journalists.”