Washington Insiders Weigh in on Shield Legislation

A push for a federal shield law isn’t new in Congress. But what’s
interesting about the latest legislation under discussion is who’s behind it,
says news analyst Cokie Roberts.

“You have the highly respected Dick Lugar in the Senate, a Republican,
and then to have Mike Pence, one of the most conservative members of
the House also behind it,” Roberts said, “… we’ll see what happens.”

Roberts, a senior news analyst for National Public Radio and
political
commentator for ABC News, and ABC’s Sam Donaldson addressed a crowd of more than
200 people Monday at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fl.

Poynter’s Bob Steele moderated a discussion titled “Community
Conversation: Press, Politics and American Life” as part of an evening that raised money for student journalism programs. Roberts and Donaldson ranged across a variety of topics, including embedded journalists, presidential politics and White House secrecy as well as confidential sources.

Support for a federal shield law crosses party lines, Roberts pointed
out, with Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) co-sponsoring the bill with Sen.
Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.).

Although 31 states have shield laws for reporters to protect
confidential sources, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, there
is no such law for federal cases.

Donaldson, an ABC News national
correspondent, told the audience that journalists need a national
shield law so that sources can trust they’ll remain confidential.

“If we’re compelled to disclose our source, why would you believe me if
I say, ‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep your name out of it,’ ?” he asked.

The Washington Post reported
Sunday
that the Senate Judiciary Committee has postponed consideration of the shield legislation after the Justice Department raised objections.

One provision of the bill would require the Justice Department to
convince a judge that a leak in national security information would hurt
the government more than helping the public.

Donaldson said balancing national
security and the public’s right to know would be tricky.

Discussion of the bill probably won’t resume until Congress returns after the November elections, according to The Post.

Another problem with creating a national shield law is deciding who would be protected, Donaldson said.

“First of all, who’s a journalist?” he asked. “… Is every blogger a
journalist? Everybody has a right to publish now on the Internet.”

Creating a federal shield law is going to be difficult, Donaldson said, but not impossible.

“I think we should try it,” he said.

During the time Congress has debated the merits of such legislation, a number of
journalists have been jailed for refusing to disclose their sources. On
Thursday, a federal judge sentenced San Francisco Chronicle reporters
Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada to 18 months in jail. The
reporters had refused to reveal who leaked to them secret grand jury
testimony alleging steroid abuse by top athletes.  

Confidential sources are crucial for reporting sensitive stories that
may put a source’s career at risk, Roberts told the community gathering. She cited a
New York Times article that ran Sunday, “Spy Agencies Say Iraq War
Worsens Terrorism Threat
,” as an example of a story journalists
couldn’t get without anonymous sources.

“Is anyone going to tell you that story on the record?” Roberts asked. “Of course not. They’d go to jail.”

Roberts said she was pleased with the way the Times
handled
the story. She noted that it made an effort to provide more information about the sources without identifying them by name — a practice she characterized as a growing trend among news organizations.

The article described the jobs and loyalties of the reporter’s anonymous
sources, their roles in the terrorism assessment, and the reason
anonymity was considered necessary:

More than a dozen United States
government officials and outside experts were interviewed for this
article, and all spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were
discussing a classified intelligence document. The officials included
employees of several government agencies, and both supporters and
critics of the Bush administration. All of those interviewed had either
seen the final version of the document or participated in the creation
of earlier drafts. These officials discussed some of the document’s
general conclusions but not details, which remain highly classified.


The Times eased its policy
for describing anonymous sources
in May 2006 after readers complained about labored phrases describing
anonymity. The policy shift revised a June 2005 memo that called for greater transparency to readers.

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