By Caroline Little
The nation learned in May that the Justice Department secretly obtained the phone records of more than 100 Associated Press reporters and monitored Fox News reporter James Rosen’s personal email and cell phone records, branding him a “possible co-conspirator” in a classified leak case for asking questions to a government source.
These revelations sent shockwaves throughout newsrooms nationwide. Reporters could no longer assure their sources that interviews will remain confidential because there would be no way to tell whether the government is listening. This attack on journalism reaches far beyond hardworking journalists and their sources. Make no mistake: The ultimate victims are the millions of Americans who rely on investigative journalism to inform them about their communities. When the government creates a chilling effect in newsrooms, it keeps important news away from the American public.
In Washington, real change often occurs in response to a crisis. That is precisely what is happening here. For centuries, the American public has assumed that journalists are the public’s watchdog, overseeing and revealing government abuses. But the AP and Fox News stories have exposed a sad truth: The government is overseeing journalists. The only way to limit this government overreach is through passage of a law that lays out clear rules for when the government can obtain information from the press.
Members of Congress from across the political spectrum recognized that need when in May they proposed the Free Flow of Information Act of 2013, which would prohibit federal prosecutors, criminal defendants or civil litigants from subpoenaing information from journalists unless they convince a federal judge that the need for the information outweighs the public interest in the free flow of information. The shield law would be a huge improvement from the current federal system, which enables prosecutors to decide whether to notify the media of a subpoena and how broad the request should be, without any oversight or any effective ability of the press to challenge these government actions.
Rep. Ted Poe, a Texas Republican and a former judge, said that he sponsored the shield law because maintaining confidentiality “is critical to ensuring the free flow of information without government interference.” His co-sponsor, Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, noted that 49 states and the District of Columbia protect journalists’ sources, and “it is long past time that our federal government provides similar protections.” Sens. Charles Schumer, R-N.Y., and Lindsey Graham, R-Fla., co-sponsored a similar measure in the Senate. Schumer aptly observed that a law is needed, as “there’s no supervision.” President Obama recently reaffirmed his support for a shield law and said that journalists “should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs.”
The response can be summed up in one word, which is rare these days in Washington: bipartisanship. The swift reaction of legislators of both parties demonstrates that press freedom is not a Democratic or a Republican talking point. It is a quintessentially American value that transcends politics and shaped our nation’s founding. As Thomas Jefferson famously wrote, the “only security of all is in a free press.”
As the organization representing the nation’s newspapers, the Newspaper Association of America is a proud member of a coalition of more than 50 media organizations that supports a federal shield law. Over the next few weeks, we will urge senators and representatives nationwide to sign on to the shield law (H.R. 1962 and S. 987) and codify this fundamental American principle. We encourage you to contact your members of Congress to tell them why a free press matters to you.
– Caroline Little is president and CEO of the Newspaper Association of America in Arlington, Va.