Accuracy in Media

The Bush Administration is absolutely right—and Senator John McCain is absolutely wrong—on the issue of the so-called “media shield law” before Congress. The purpose of the law is to enable people claiming to be journalists to hide their anonymous sources of information even when those sources are involved in or have knowledge of criminal or terrorist activity.

The bill would also give federal protection to anonymous sources in and out of government who hide behind the media in order to destroy or damage the lives of innocent people.

President Bush has threatened a veto but the media are counting on Congress to override it.

The bill puts in the hands of federal politicians and judges the ability to define a “legitimate” journalist or blogger who is deserving of federal protection. As such, it restricts First Amendment rights to a certain group of people currently in favor with federal authorities.

In endorsing the bill, Senator McCain told an Associated Press forum, “There will be times, I suspect, when I will wonder again if I should have supported this measure. But I trust in your integrity and patriotism that those occasions won’t be so numerous that I will, in fact, deeply regret my decision.”

This seems to be a big roll of the dice with our lives on the line.

My reading of the First Amendment says that Congress should stay out of the business of deciding who and who is not a journalist. My reading of the Constitution is that journalists are like everybody else—citizens of the United States—and that when they have knowledge of criminal activity, they should disclose that to the appropriate law enforcement agencies. Why should the media be above the law?

The answer is that they have the power and ability to work their will on the Congress. Fortunately, the Bush Administration is standing in their way.

Time is running out. Under media pressure, one version of the bill passed the House by a vote of 398-21. Only 21 members had the courage to oppose the demands of the Big Media lobby. The Senate version (S.2035) passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on October 4. The vote was 15-2. Only Republican Senators Sam Brownback and Jon Kyl had the courage to vote against it.

Media lobbyists are now demanding that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid schedule a full Senate vote and pass the bill and send it to the President’s desk. McCain’s endorsement was a major feather in their cap. Democrats Obama and Hillary Clinton can be expected to fall in line.

By the term “media,” we are talking about the biggest guns in the business. As noted by Senator Patrick Leahy, a supporter of the bill, “The Free Flow of Information Act is strongly supported by more than 50 news media and journalism organizations, including the National Newspaper Association, the Coalition of Journalists for an Open Government, the Magazine Publishers of America and the National Press Club. The call for action extends to editorial pages across the country, including the Washington Post, Arizona Republic, Salt Lake Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times.”

Considering all of this high-powered media support, is it any wonder that voices opposed to the bill like Accuracy in Media have been suppressed?

It’s officially called the “Free Flow of Information Act” but we call it the
“Special Rights for Journalists Act.” There are many problems with the bill, but one of the most glaring is the failure to adequately define a “journalist.” The media arm of a terrorist group might be able to qualify, depending on what a federal judge rules, as a protected organization.

The bill says, “The term ‘journalism’ means the regular gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.”

What does “regular” mean? Would a blogger qualify if he or she posted material every other day or every other week? Does this apply to the media arm of al-Qaeda? To Al-Jazeera?

Consider that federal officials have indications that a “journalist” has knowledge of terrorist activity, based on his or her sources in a terrorist organization. Under the media shield law, the “journalist” could claim these are confidential sources and refuse to provide evidence of criminal activity that threatens the lives of the public. The bill has exceptions for national security or bodily harm, but the burden of proving that the protected information has to be known is put on those responsible for stopping terrorist or criminal activity. It may be too late to save lives with this bill in place.

One incident that sparked renewed interest in the legislation was when Judith Miller of the New York Times went to jail rather than reveal her sources in the so-called CIA leak case. It is strange that the liberal media cite this case as justification for a shield law to protect anonymous sources. The sources in this case were Bush Administration and other officials accused of illegally naming a CIA operative, Valerie Plame, for the purpose of damaging her husband, Joe Wilson, a Democratic Party operative commissioned by the CIA to investigate a possible Iraqi nuclear deal.

Ironically, a media shield law might have protected the anonymity of those same Bush officials, who were merely providing information to the press about the motives behind a controversial CIA mission. In the end, of course, those officials were never found guilty of violating any law against naming intelligence operatives. Instead, former vice-presidential aide Lewis Libby was merely found guilty of obstructing the prosecutor’s search for answers. For her part, Miller was released after making a deal. However, she was ostracized by her colleagues for using Bush officials as sources and left the Times.

The media claim a shield law would help them protect sources of information about government wrongdoing. But the Watergate scandal was disclosed without a federal shield law in place.

One real danger of a media shield law comes when the wrongdoing involves those anonymous government sources leaking false information to the press and then wanting to escape accountability for their malicious actions. Former government scientist Steven Hatfill was falsely named in the media as a suspect in the anthrax murders case and his reputation and career were destroyed. He went to court years ago to get the names of the government officials who targeted him. Under current law, even though they are stalling him, Hatfill has a reasonable chance of forcing these journalists to provide this information so that he can hold those officials accountable. A federal media shield law would make it impossible to get those names and for him to get justice.

We have written critically about this legislation for years but have been denied the opportunity to testify against it. This demonstrates the power that the media have over our elected officials. Simply put, when the matter before Congress is something that directly affects them, the Big Media will make sure that the American people are not given two sides of the story.

This is the essential fact: our Big Media are the biggest lobby in town. They not only hire lobbyists; they use their media properties to lobby. And no campaign finance law will ever apply to their editorials, news stories and commentaries.

Fortunately, the Justice Department is fighting back against this massive media blitz. It has launched a web page with information about the dangers of the legislation. They represent the views of the law enforcement officials and prosecutors trying to save lives—our lives.

Senator McCain said supporting the bill was a close call. “It is, frankly, a license to do harm, perhaps serious harm,” he said. “But it also is a license to do good; to disclose injustice and unlawfulness and inequities; and to encourage their swift correction.”

Have the media earned our trust? You’ve got to be kidding.

Isn’t it interesting that McCain referred to this bill as a “license” for the media? I thought the First Amendment was supposed to guard against federal schemes to license the press. In any case, the media already have a “license” to do good. It’s called the First Amendment.

By the way, the First Amendment is supposed to apply to us, too, not just the favored few who qualify as “media.” In this new media age, everyone has the potential to be a journalist. But the media shield bill will necessarily limit the definition of the term.

Tell your Senators: no special rights for journalists. Don’t tamper with the First Amendment. Don’t give the media a license to do serious harm.

Ready to fight back against media bias?
Join us by donating to AIM today.


Comments are turned off for this article.