An overwhelming majority in the House of Representatives voted for a law for the protection of journalists last Tuesday.
Bill H.R. 2102, officially titled “The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007,” provides for a federal law that would award journalists the right to protect confidential sources except in some special instances involving terrorism, national security and impending death or physical harm.
Representatives from both ends of the political spectrum supported the bill, passing it 398 to 21.
“It will give both journalists and potential sources more confidence,” said Bill Marimow, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. “When a reporter makes a pledge to keep somebody’s identity confidential, they have an ethical obligation as well as a practical obligation.”
Since New York Times reporter Judith Miller spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal a confidential source in 2005, bills and laws similar to H.R. 2102 have garnered increasing support on both the state and national level.
Pennsylvania is among the 33 states that currently have media shield laws. Before being passed by the House of Representatives, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed a similar bill 15 to 2. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., sponsored that bill.
Zack Stalberg, the president of the local political watchdog group The Committee of Seventy and former editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, said, “The more protection that journalists can get, the better, especially in the current climate.”
Opposition to the bill is rooted in instances involving journalists like Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass, two disgraced writers who lost their jobs for citing sources that didn’t exist.
Blair was a New York Times reporter who was fired after the newspaper learned that he fabricated numerous stories during his four years there. Glass is a University of Pennsylvania graduate who was exposed for his fabrication of 27 of 41 stories he wrote for The New Republic journal.
“People who are making stuff up are pathological liars, not journalists,” said current Daily News editor Michael Days. “I think the bulk of journalists work very hard and enjoy working hard.”
“Identified sources are exceedingly important particularly after the numerous instances in recent years in which anonymous sources were used to push false stories, or at least slant the truth,” Temple journalism professor Christopher Harper wrote in an e-mail.
Harper also expressed his discomfort with the idea that a shield law would give journalists and sources the same relationship of confidentiality as doctors and patients.
“Even though journalists have an important job to do, I don’t think that job is as important as the other professions that have absolute privilege,” he wrote.
Success for the media shield bill is uncertain as it must still face the Senate and what appears to be strong opposition by the Bush administration prior to its possible passage as a law. How it will fare in the Senate is unknown, and the White House administration has stated its position against the bill citing that it may lead to national security threats.
Though the passage of a shield law would represent important strides for the protection of the media, it can only go so far.
“It’s not absolute protection, of course, and journalists would love to have that,” said Temple journalism professor Tom Eveslage, who specializes in media ethics and law. “But they’re not going to get absolute protection because the Supreme Court has said there isn’t such a thing.”
Eveslage also described the public’s support for protection for journalists.
“It’s interesting because the public has doubt in a lot of things that journalists do, but that’s not one of them,” he said, “They like the notion of confidential sources because they think that’s going to give them information, and it’s going to protect them as sources.”
Time will tell if the federal media shield law will be put into effect, pending the decisions from the Senate and the White House.
“We’ve been waiting years for this,” Days said. “Hopefully, we can get it passed through our president.”
Morgan A. Zalot can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.