Privilege for whom?

I am confused about shield laws. That alone is heresy for a journalist; we’re all supposed to be all for them, right? But I come at this from the perspective of those outside the castle — bloggers and just citizens — and so I don’t think it’s as simple as it seems. And that’s what I told the producer at Newshour when she called to ask my stand. They’re having me on anyway, as a heretic.

I don’t want to see an official definition of who is a journalist, not only because this is likely to exclude bloggers but also because official status can be given and can be taken away. Danger lurks there.

So why don’t we define journalism, for this purpose, as I usually do: as an act? Perhaps. But there, too, we risk excluding the person who commits a major act of journalism but once.

The third possibility is to define, instead, the quality of the whistle blown: this is so important to society that it’s worth protecting the source so we could get it. Of course, this puts the power to decide what’s important in the wrong — that is to say, official — hands.

So I don’t know where I end up. I confess my confusion.

The added problem is that there has been abuse of the system — or rather, the code, I suppose — on many sides. Journalists have overused unnamed and confidential sources. We should be in the business of revealing, not keeping secrets. In some cases, we don’t reveal sources just because we’re too lazy to get the named source or because we’re buddy-buddy with the source (that’s the way the tit-for-tat system works); in other cases, the disclosure is not worth the breaking of the compact that really matters, the compact we hold with our public: It is our job to tell what we know when we know it. It is not a privilege to hold secrets. It is a curse.

The sources use this as well, of course, hiding behind their own anonymity so they can spin spin, float balloons, hit and run. And we let them. We allow ourselves to be used.

The Newshour producer asked me whether I was uncomfortable with reporters, like Russert, testifying at trials, like Libby’s. I hesitated. I hate lawyers and lawsuits so much, I react with reflexive discomfort. But I suppose what makes me legitimately uncomfortable is that this becomes yet another way for reporters to be used: If you report something critical of someone with power or lawyers, you can end up sitting in court. That’s particularly uncomfortable for citizen journalists who don’t have a million dollars of The Times’ to blow on legal fees. The Plame prosecutor has said that reporters should be called as witnesses only sparingly. But, once more, we have the problem of an official defining what sparing means. And besides, reporters may find themselves in the odd position of not wanting to know something because it puts them in personal peril: We turn into a profession of Sgt. Schultzes. We know nossing!

On the other hand, it can’t make me uncomfortable to see journalists in the same role as any citizen. Didn’t an editor at the Online News Association almost tearfully plea that we shouldn’t call bloggers “citizen journalists” because journalists are citizens, too? Indeed. Journalists are citizens and need to stop living apart from the community but be again a part of it.

At the end of the day, transparency is still the best policy. The less we find ourselves in the position of keeping secrets, the better we serve our public. Do some disclosures, some scandals, some whistles blown merit getting into this mess of keeping confidentiality? Yes. Do we still need investigative reporting that traffics in such secrets? Yes. But that doesn’t mean it’s not a confusing and perilous mire.

: See also my Guardian column on the changing nature of secrets online.