By Debra J. Saunders
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has been working on a bill to shield reporters from heavy-handed federal officials who seek to use their power to uncover information about whistle-blowers and leakers. Given the Obama Department of Justice’s recent adventures in surveilling reporters’ phone logs, you might think that for her trouble, Feinstein would be the object of much praise and many hosannas from the ink-stained-wretch community. But no, you can file this one under: No good deed goes unpunished.
DiFi, you see, made the mistake of insisting that a proposed reporters’ privilege law, the Free Flow of Information Act, apply only to journalists. At a recent Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, she distinguished between professional journalists and “a 17-year-old who drops out of high school, buys a website for $5 and starts a blog.” Quoth Feinstein: “This bill is described as a reporter shield bill. I believe it should be applied to real reporters.”
Big mistake, that “real reporters” line. Columns and blogs rained down the wrath of the overwrought. The far-left Truthout accused Feinstein of wanting “to strip independent journalists’ rights.” Drudge Report founder Matt Drudge tweeted “fascist.”
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, complained the measure “leaves out citizen bloggers.” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, charged, “Any carve-out of particular media for protection and special treatment is, in effect, government licensing of legitimate media.”
Nice try, but because the law is designed to protect journalists from federal snooping and because journalists aren’t licensed or certified, Feinstein is right to maintain that a shield law should define who qualifies for protection as a journalist.
“To me, there’s not really a need to define the world of journalism,” David Greene, senior staff attorney of the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, told me. A shield law, Greene argued, is designed not to “protect journalists” but to protect the dissemination of information.
But then a terrorist group can — wink, wink — report on and broadcast a violent attack for the purpose of intimidation and then claim the mantle of reportage.
Likewise, an anarchist could broadcast classified information just for the fun of it.
Does EFF think WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is a journalist? To that question, Greene responded, EFF has no opinion.
What really frosts me is how many journalists and journalism organizations rejected Feinstein’s belief in “real reporters.” It’s a throwback to 2007, when the San Francisco Chronicle and other news organs called blogger Josh Wolf, then 24, “the longest-imprisoned journalist” in America.
Was Wolf imprisoned? Yes. Unjustly? You bet; he didn’t commit a crime. But he wasn’t a journalist.
He was a self-described artist, activist and anarchist who recorded a 2005 demonstration against the World Trade Organization, at which a protester broke the skull of San Francisco police officer Peter Shields. Wolf was not a real reporter; he had no confidential-source agreement. He was an activist and an amateur who later became a real journalist when he was hired by a newspaper and had to adhere to professional standards.
Back to the proposed shield law. The Society of Professional Journalists urged members to protest earlier Feinstein language that defined journalists as “salaried” staffers of news organizations or “independent contractors.” I don’t understand what SPJ leaders were thinking.
Organizations that represent professionals usually try to protect the craft, to set standards that enhance standing in the community, and also, not coincidentally, to help their practice thrive economically.
Journalists? Many have voiced their outrage that Feinstein dared suggest that they’re more polished than a 17-year-old blogger.
SPJ now supports the shield law in part because it includes so-called improvements, such as dumping the compensation requirement. Yes, journalist groups actually pushed for Washington to pass laws that protect competitors who don’t pay their people.
Do you think maybe real reporters have a real death wish?
Email Debra J. Saunders at firstname.lastname@example.org.