Accuracy in Media

A group of legislators has introduced a bill called the Free Flow of Information Act. It is termed a “Media Shield Law” that will make it very difficult to compel journalists to appear in federal court cases and turn over information and identify confidential sources. In a column headlined, “Republicans Vs. the Press,” Robert Novak said that Senator Richard Lugar, one of the main sponsors, could find only three other Republicans Senators willing to co-sponsor it, “thanks to anti-media hostility in GOP ranks.”

There are better reasons to oppose this bill. One is that journalists don’t deserve special rights or protections.

A press release about the bill states that reporters deserve “the same protections that are afforded other professions such as clergy, attorneys and physicians.” But why should journalists be compared to those categories of people?

In an excellent article in the Wilson Quarterly, Terry Eastland makes the following basic point: “?though journalists aspired to the status of professionals, they never acquired the self-regulatory mechanisms found in law, medicine, or even business.”  This point is made in the context of explaining how the media are changing before our very eyes, and how the definition of “journalist” is changing as well.

Calling oneself a journalist should not be a way to avoid responsibility under the law and report evidence of criminal activity.

Consider the Steven Hatfill case. He is the former government scientist described by then-Attorney John Ashcroft as a “person of interest” in the 2001 anthrax attacks. Hatfill’s reputation and career were ruined by FBI agents and other government officials leaking damaging but false information about him to the press. He is another Richard Jewell, the security guard that the FBI falsely blamed for the Olympic Park bombing.

Hatfill has sued the media but he is also suing the federal government. He argues that the leaks from the government violated his right to privacy. He wants to identify the government agents who fingered him because he wants them to pay. In order to do that, however, he wants reporters to identify sources who provided them information about the Justice Department’s investigation. That’s the only way to root out these corrupt government officials. A U.S. district court approved Hatfill’s request to subpoena the Associated Press and other news organizations that produced stories about him based on leaks from federal agents. AP opposed the subpoena, arguing that the First Amendment “shields them from being forced to disclose what they have learned in confidence,” according to an AP account.

AP assistant general counsel Dave Tomlin said, “News organizations are supposed to gather news, as opposed to spending their time performing research and testifying in court on behalf of various parties with axes to grind.”

But Hatfill’s point is that journalists in this case became willing accomplices of government agents with axes to grind. He wants to find out who they are so he can hold them accountable for what they did to him. That’s justice.

It’s fine for the AP lawyer to argue that the First Amendment is a shield for journalists.  But the First Amendment doesn’t protect journalists from the consequences of what they write. And when they collaborate with the government to damage or smear the reputation of an innocent person, they should be forced to tell what they know.

Government lying in the case continues. The government claims that the investigation into the post 9/11 anthrax attacks is “active and ongoing.” The Washington Post said that law enforcement sources, “who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said there have been no significant new developments.”

It’s now been over three years since those attacks. It is important for our national security and survival to find out why the case is unsolved and who in the government used the press to finger an innocent man. Members of the media must tell us what they know. They are citizens as well. They are not above the law.

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