The Knight Foundation’s Eric Newton draws attention to the knottier issues around a proposed federal shield law for journalists and urges critics to be included in the debate about whether it is better to have a constitutional or merely a legislative protection.
I believe a shield law that protects job descriptions is fatally flawed. At a Knight event in Washington last week, investigative journalist Scott Armstrong argued strongly that the government will slice out exceptions to protecting national-security reporters. “More cases are emerging because it’s never been easier to leak or investigate leaks,” Newton writes. “Reacting to a new generation of digital whistleblowers, like Chelsea Manning, Armstrong said this administration began to treat all leaks ‘as if they were espionage cases.’ There have been seven leak cases under the Obama administration, and only four in all of history before; Savage called challenging informants the ‘new norm.’”
I worry that by requiring the journalist to work for a news organization or freelance for them or be a journalism student, many will be left out. But arguing to add more categories of people to the definition isn’t the answer.
The answer is to protect not the journalist but the act of journalism: that is, revealing information that is in the public interest.
Oh, yes, I know that would then include Wikileaks, Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Thomas Drake, and Daniel Ellsberg — none of whom would qualify under the proposed law but every one of whom has revealed information of vital public interest, fueling the debate that democracy should welcome.
Until we are ready to stand behind that broad principle of information in the public interest as our definition of journalism, then I come to see that I stand with the shield-law critics Newton cites. For we do have a shield. It is the First Amendment. Asking Congress to modify and limit it is short-sighted and too much an act of self-interest by journalistic organizations eager to be protected themselves.
Let’s remember that ultimately, it’s not the journalists we are seeking to protect but the sources of that information. Now that those sources can share directly with the public, with or without journalists as mediators, then we must protect them as journalistic actors.