Conservative Christian Congressman, the saviour of the US media?

May 3, 2007

CJR May/June 2007

An interesting analysis from the Columbia Journalism Review about a US politician who is an unlikely champion of press freedom.
Congressman Mike Pence, a ‘charismatic’ Republican (isn’t that an oxymoron?) is supporting media shield laws to protect journalists who protect their sources. Here’s a brief taste from Bree Nordenson’s CJR article:

Conservatives these days are generally not considered champions of the national press, but a little more than two years ago, after reading an editorial in The New York Times about Judith Miller’s jailing and the need for a federal reporter’s privilege, Pence took it upon himself to champion the legislative effort for a federal media shield law, which would protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources. Pence, a forty-seven-year-old lawyer and former talk-show host, may not like what he sees as “bad news bias” in the mainstream media, but he’s far more troubled by the “rising tide of cases where federal prosecutors have used the threat of jail time or outright jail time to coerce reporters to reveal confidential sources.” For the last two years, Pence has been the primary legislative force behind the shield-law effort, making it one of his signature issues. “Our founders did not put the freedom of the press in the First Amendment because they got good press—quite the opposite was true,” he says. For Pence, the shield law represents a good-government provision, one that would ultimately help citizens “make informed decisions” about their leadership.

Personally, I’m a bit ambivalent about shield laws. The Judith Miller case for example is complex and while I don’t support journalists being jailed for refusing to reveal sources, her politics (compared, for example to Josh Wolf) are distasteful. Shield laws would have provided her with deep cover to continue playing the disingenious disinformation role on behalf of the White House.
There are strong arguments for protecting journalists from charges of contempt if they do refuse to cough up the name of a key source, but in my mind, the real danger is that shield laws will be used, not to protect journalists, but to force conditions of disclosure that will in fact weaken any protection reporters have against contempt charges.
That is shield laws will define a small area of privileged communication and leave most stuff open for intrusion from the courts.
The best protection, I think, is in fact to have strong whistleblower legislation that protects the disclosure by the source. This way courts would not be able to pressure reporters into revealing sources by chucking them in jail for contempt. The information would be protected at source making it an offence for the reporter to reveal it and limiting the court’s ability to probe and pressure journalists in the witness box.