A view of a National Shield Law for the press

20171114 104122Some weeks back I decided to sit in on the House Judiciary Committee hearing with Attorney General (AG) Jeff Sessions. Having attended previous Congressional hearings with the Attorney General as the key witness, I didn't expect much in terms of new or enlightening testimony regarding the Russian meddling in our election probe and I was certainly not disappointed or, rather, pleasantly surprised by his testimony or lack thereof.
His responses to questions dealing with Russia and the inconsistencies in his previous testimony before Congress consisted of either “I do not recall,” or “I am not at liberty to discuss.” Representative Hakeem Jeffries of New York put it best when he asked AG Sessions if he realized that in previous testimony he used the “I don't recall” response more than 30 times and today he used it more than 20 times to which AG Sessions responded that he “didn't recall.”
What compounded the frustration was that the hearing felt like two separate hearings conducted at the same time with only one witness; half of the inquisitors dealt with Russia while the other half conducted a hearing on Hillary Clinton. I'll let you figure out which side of the aisle focused on Russia and which side focused on Hillary.
As a somewhat regular attendee at the White House daily press briefings I am quite familiar with Sarah Huckabee Sanders' keen ability to never actually answer a question and, rather, always respond with a set of talking points regardless of the nature of the question being asked. It is an uncanny ability when you add to it the fact that it is always done with a straight face. Truly impressive if also truly frustrating. I have at times yelled out “answer the question” but without any success.
However, this Judiciary Committee hearing turned out not to be a complete waste of my time and not just because it turned out to be rather entertaining. It is because, as we found our way through the so many committee members and their questions which, the longer the proceeding went the more repetitive the questions became, we finally arrived at questions from our own Congressman Jamie Raskin.

Rather than pursue the very same repetitive line of questioning, Congressman Raskin decided to use his opportunity to go in a slightly different direction; as a journalist, his chosen line of questioning was sincerely welcomed. Congressman Raskin began his questioning by pointing out that the current president portrays the press as the enemy of the people, even though the founders considered the press the people's best friend. He then asked the Attorney General whether he would commit to not prosecuting members of the press for protecting the confidentiality of their sources. It was somewhat encouraging that the Attorney General, unlike the President, recognized the role of the press and its right to protect its sources. He went on to emphasize that his office has had no conflict with the press since he took office as Attorney General. What he did not do, however, was to commit on the record to not jailing journalists for doing their jobs.
Enter Congressman Jamie Raskin to the rescue. On the very same day as the hearing and this exchange between AG Sessions and Congressman Raskin, the Congressman took the next critical step and introduced, along with Ohio Congressman Jim Jordan, a bipartisan federal shield law designed to protect journalists from disclosing confidential sources.
The Free Flow of Information Act of 2017 (H.R. 4328) is “a bipartisan federal shield law that would protect the public's right to know by safeguarding a free and independent press” according to Congressman Raskin's press office. The legislation establishes a federal statutory privilege that protects journalists from being compelled to reveal confidential sources and ensure they can do their jobs without fear of imprisonment or intimidation.
This is critical since, even though most states individually have some form of a shield law, standards vary from state to state and are not enforced with any consistency leaving journalists vulnerable to imprisonment for protecting confidential sources. For example, Brian J. Karem, the executive editor of the Montgomery County Sentinel, is one such journalist who spent time in a San Antonio jail almost 30 years ago for not revealing his confidential source.
We talk freely about the need to protect the freedom of the press portion of the First Amendment to the Constitution, but what does that really entail? Without the press' ability to protect the confidentiality of its sources, the press would be hamstrung from providing the information that the public needs to make informed decisions especially at the ballot box.
The current president's attacks on the press using the term “fake news” is designed to undermine the credibility of the legitimate press. How ironic that an individual who considers the headlines of the National Enquirer to be “real“ news, places himself in the position of arbiter regarding real from fake news.
Fake news, by the way, is news that is made up; it is not news that is simply unflattering and based on the president's own words. There is nothing fake about taking this president to task for his own actions and words. That is part of being a journalist.




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