USA TODAY — Our view on the public’s right to know: Shield would protect public
July 28, 2008
As the Senate moves into the last week before its August recess, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could do good on several fronts by moving on one of his stated priorities: Passing a measure to protect reporters’ ability to keep promises of confid
July 28, 2008
As the Senate moves into the last week before its August recess, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., could do good on several fronts by moving on one of his stated priorities: Passing a measure to protect reporters’ ability to keep promises of confidentiality to sources.
The measure, which has broad bipartisan support, including that of both presidential candidates, might at first glance look like a parochial interest. It’s anything but.
Without it, whistle-blowers and others are less likely to expose wrongdoing by government and other powerful interests. Those sources need to know that promises of confidentiality will be kept so they can speak without fear of reprisals.
Think of some of the recent scandals that might not have been unearthed had whistle-blowers feared speaking to the press:
The shameful treatment of wounded soldiers at the Army’s Walter Reed hospital, exposed by The Washington Post.
The abuse of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison, revealed through information and photos, obtained confidentially.
USA TODAY’s disclosure of the Pentagon’s glacial efforts to equip U.S. forces in Iraq with vehicles more resistant to roadside bombs.
Maryland passed the nation’s first shield law in 1896. Today, laws or court rulings in every state except Wyoming protect a reporter’s ability to shield sources, much as similar laws shield information given to clergy and physicians. But there is no corresponding federal law. In the past few years, whatever protections reporters thought they had have been eroded. Federal prosecutors and private attorneys have dragged a parade of reporters into court demanding they name names. Judges have threatened reporters with huge personal fines and occasionally tossed one into jail for refusing to reveal a source. News corporations have been fined millions.
The more such tactics are used, the less the public will know about government wrongdoing. It’s as simple as that.
Recognizing the problem, the House passed a shield measure last fall, 398-21. Now, the Senate is trying to follow, but top Bush administration officials have said they’ll recommend a presidential veto.
Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell argues below that a shield law would damage the nation’s ability to protect national security information. That fails to credit changes being made in the Senate measure. Sponsors, led by Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., are modifying it to give judges broad latitude to side with the government and force disclosure in national security cases. Where lives are at stake or a terrorist attack may occur, the law would provide no shield at all. Nor would journalists be protected if they witnessed a crime or participated in one.
What the measure does is set rules for everyone. That’s precisely what Congress is supposed to do when a vital interest the public’s right to know is at stake.