Accuracy in Media

By now most people are aware of the federal media shield law, “The Free Flow of Information Act,” before Congress, thanks largely to the jailing of New York Times reporter Judith Miller and the furor it has caused among the mainstream media. The bill, which has been rewritten because of its severe flaws, would shield the media from identifying their sources in criminal and certain national security cases. Deputy Attorney General James Comey says the bill is so bad and dangerous that it would “cover criminal or terrorist organizations that also have media operations, including many foreign terrorist organizations, such as al Qaeda.”

Since the beginning, Accuracy in Media has reported and researched this story, coming out against the bill for a variety of reasons (see http://www.aim.org for more information) and referring to it as the “Special Rights for Journalists Act.” While it might seem obvious that those in the mainstream media would be anxious to husband some federal protection for their antics, it is far less clear how far they are willing to go to get it. But don’t expect to read about it in the Times―or any other media for that matter.

Courtney Mabeus of Capital Eye, a money-in-politics newsletter put out by the Center for Responsive Politics, has recently amassed an illuminating stockpile of information pointing out who has come down where and who has spent what so far on this issue. You can read this report at http://www.capitaleye.org/inside.asp?ID=178.  It is titled, appropriately enough, “Keeping Secrets.” But keeping secrets from whom? The public, of course. This is the same public that is supposed to have a right to know.

Despite the fact that nearly 80 news organizations are supporting the bill, among them some of the top metropolitan newspapers and television networks, such media companies are apparently taking the more stealthy approach in their lobbying efforts. That is, they are concealing this effort from their readers and viewers. They are obviously aware of the perception that could develop if the public became aware that major news outlets, who are charged to report without bias on government and lawmakers, are at the same time actively lobbying for favorable legislation. It turns out that news organizations behave just like any other special interest. The difference is they don’t blow the whistle on themselves.

Some of their efforts have been undertaken by groups like the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), which isn’t generally politically active, but has nonetheless initiated a campaign to raise $30,000 in support for the bill.

Similarly, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, while not directly lobbying, has engaged in weekly strategy sessions to inform and encourage others, like the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), to do so. ASNE executive director Scott Bosley has said that although the group has never been interested in maintaining a strong direct lobbying force, as “every newspaper has its own editorial page,” they have gotten involved anyway. Their attitude seems to be that when it comes time to getting special protections enshrined in federal law, they just have to get up off the sidelines.

Yet the cr?me de la cr?me of the movement is the powerful Communications Workers of America (CWA) union. Boasting the Newspaper Guild and its more than 34,000 industry members, they have helped to organize up to 20 rallies outside federal court houses in protest of the jailing of Judith Miller and in support of the Special Rights for Journalists Act. Unlike the other active members of the media lobbying effort however, CWA is one of the top political donors in any field. They have contributed more than $23 million since 1989, almost exclusively to liberal and Democratic organizations and candidates.

In the spirit of full disclosure, however, one would expect that the news media outlets that have so far come forward in support of the bill but are still attempting to fairly cover the story would at least make passing references to their lobbying efforts. Yet after AIM examined stories from CNN, CBS News, the New York Times and others, we have found no references at all to what these organizations have been up to.

The issue isn’t whether such activities are illegal or wrong; they clearly aren’t. But they have “conflict-of-interest” written all over them. Even still, a small amount of disclosure could go a long way to reestablishing the type of credibility the news media in this country once commanded. But that might be a little too much to ask for, especially when reporters appear on the verge of getting federal protection for their much-abused practice of using “anonymous sources” in criminal and national security cases. The tragedy is that this rush to judgment, conducted largely in secret, could have terrible consequences for the global war on terrorism, enabling terrorists to masquerade as “sources” for the media when they plot and plan to kill more Americans.




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