Accuracy in Media

Republican Rep. Mike Pence of Indiana, who is usually a reliable conservative, is promoting a “federal shield law” for reporters. It has gotten some publicity in the wake of attempts by a Special Counsel to force reporters Matt Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of the New York Times to reveal their “confidential” and anonymous sources in the case of CIA operative Valerie Plame, whose identity was disclosed by columnist Robert Novak. The New York Times urged the appointment of a special counsel, but doesn’t want its own journalist to provide testimony in the case that he is pursuing. What hypocrisy.

This hypocritical attitude may explain why Pence, the main sponsor of the bill in the House, has only 36 co-sponsors, and Senator Richard Lugar, the main sponsor of the bill in the Senate, has only 8 co-sponsors.  The vast majority of congressional representatives don’t seem to agree that journalists should deserve special rights or protections, and why calling oneself a journalist should be a way to avoid responsibility under the law and report evidence of criminal activity, especially in national security cases. A federal shield law would enable reporters to avoid providing evidence of criminal activity to federal authorities or in federal proceedings.

However, in the wake of the naming of former FBI official Mark Felt as the Watergate source “Deep throat,” Pence is promoting his federal shield law for journalists.

Bill McConnell of Broadcasting & Cable magazine reports that Pence believes  that there are two things that are clear about Felt’s role in the Watergate scandal. “Deep Throat exposed corruption in high places because of his absolute confidence that his identity would be protected, and Deep Throat would not have that protection today,” he said.

But how can that be? There was no federal shield law back then, and there isn’t one today. And why is it automatically the case that Felt should have had his identity protected? If we are to believe the Woodward/Bernstein version of history, Felt had evidence of criminal activity but didn’t go to the authorities. Instead, he gave the information to Woodward in a garage. He took the law into his own hands, violating the law in the process. Now Woodward and Felt’s family are trying to cash in. Is that something we want to encourage?  

The media certainly want us to believe that it is fashionable to honor or even glorify Felt for his reported role as Deep Throat, and Pence wants to protect the media when they use such sources. Pence says that, “Unless Congress enacts a federal media shield law, it is likely there will be no more Deep Throats because of the risk that government officials face by revealing information that the public has a right to know. Congress should ensure the accountability that attends confidential sources and a free and independent press.”

The fact is, however, that confidential sources can also be used to destroy innocent people. Consider the case of former government scientist Steven Hatfill, whose life was ruined because government officials leaked false information to the press about him. Hatfill was falsely linked to the post 9/11 anthrax attacks and was even labeled a “person of interest” by then-Attorney General John Ashcroft. But he was never charged and there is still no evidence against him. Hatfill has filed suit, against the government and the press, and we hope he is successful. But if there were a federal shield law, Hatfill might not be able to force journalists to identify the anonymous government sources who damaged his reputation and destroyed his career. For the sake of justice and clearing an innocent man’s name, the journalists who smeared Hatfill should identify the government officials who orchestrated the campaign against him.     

This is a big case?bigger than the Cooper/Miller case. Nine news organizations have been subpoenaed in the Hatfill case. Those news organizations should not be able to hide behind a federal shield law in order to protect the government officials who smeared Hatfill.

Rep. Pence is a good congressman who usually does the right thing. And it is tempting to go to the defense of the press as a guardian of the public’s right to know. But Pence learned the wrong lesson from Felt being named as Deep Throat. Felt should have pursued other avenues for justice in that case. He could have gone to the Grand Jury or Watergate Judge John Sirica. Instead, he went to a reporter, who has earned millions of dollars and stands to earn millions more with another book, this one on “the man behind Deep Throat.”  Felt, assuming he was Deep Throat, decided to leak confidential information for various motives, including that he was passed over by Nixon for FBI director. Now he suffers from a stroke and dementia and babbles about making money as a celebrity. This is not something we should encourage.

What’s worse is that 30 years later, as the Hatfill case shows, the FBI is still out of control. We don’t need a new law to encourage more irresponsible and false reporting from journalists getting handouts from the FBI and doing the dirty work of corrupt government agents or officials. Reporters should have to answer for what they report. And if they don’t want to face justice, they should go to real jails, not country club prisons or “house arrest” in their own comfortable homes.

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