Accuracy in Media

Senator Arlen Specter, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, is supposed to run the hearings on Bush’s new Supreme Court nominee. Let’s hope he does a better job than the hearings he’s held on a proposed federal media shield bill.

Coverage of his October 19 Senate hearing was, as expected, one-sided and atrocious. The coverage was just as bad as the hearing itself.

Katharine Q. Seelye’s story in the New York Times was typical. She just forgot to mention that her employer, the New York Times, was officially backing the proposed law, which would enable reporters to conceal their sources in criminal and national security cases.

Another problem was that Times reporter Judith Miller was a witness.  The story began: “Judith Miller, the reporter for The New York Times who spent 85 days in jail for refusing to identify a confidential source, warned Wednesday that unless Congress passed a national shield law to protect reporters and their sources, ‘the Alexandria detention facility may have to open an entire new wing to house reporters.'”

This is a good sound bite but where is the evidence for this claim? Well, the second paragraph of the Times story said that, “In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee, Ms. Miller said more than two dozen reporters had been subpoenaed in the last two years over their confidential sources and faced the possibility of going to jail.”

The possibility? The fact remains that Miller is the only reporter to have gone to that facility. What makes her think dozens of her colleagues are headed there? If President Bush had made such a bone-headed statement, the press would have jumped all over him. But when Miller of the Times says such a thing, it is reported as a knowledgeable opinion.

During an interview that aired on the NBC News affiliate in Washington, D.C., I made the elementary point that Miller could have avoided jail by simply telling the truth. Is that too much to ask from our media when criminal activity and national security are involved? Apparently so.

Miller gave the false impression that these two dozen reporters who have been subpoenaed are protecting whistleblowers. In fact, some of those cases involve reporters who were used by corrupt government officials to smear Steven Hatfill in the anthrax letters case. His lawyer has sought the testimony of reporters to discover which officials in the FBI and elsewhere were spreading false information about Hatfill to the press. Hatfill was the subject of endless stories that he was somehow connected to the anthrax murders. But the government never had a case. He is another Richard Jewell, the security guard falsely implicated by the FBI and the press in the Olympic Park bombing.

A federal shield law, enabling reporters to protect their sources, would prevent Hatfill from clearing his name in the federal courts and holding federal officials accountable for smearing him by using the press.

That part of the story wasn’t told at the Senate hearing, which was put together under the direction of Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Senator Arlen Specter. It was a slanted and stacked hearing, just like the one that was held on July 20 under Specter’s direction and authority.

The only real critic of a federal media shield bill to testify was Chuck Rosenberg, United States Attorney for the Southern District of Texas on behalf of the United States Department of Justice. He said the bill was so bad that it would protect terrorist sources for a network like Al-Jazeera.

But Specter had a different opinion. The Times quoted Specter as saying that he supported the bill but couldn’t figure out why Miller went to jail. “Here you have a reporter in jail for 85 days, and millions of Americans wonder why,” Specter said. “I am one of those,” he said. Specter said that he had visited Miller in the Alexandria Detention Center in Virginia. “I asked her and she couldn’t tell me why she was in jail,” he said.

That’s a laughable comment. The answer is that Miller went to jail because she refused to testify before a grand jury about her knowledge of possible criminal activity by government officials.

If Specter doesn’t understand that elementary fact, he should step down as chairman of that committee. Perhaps a new chairman would hold hearings featuring more witnesses with critical comments about the bill. Accuracy in Media has been twice denied the opportunity to testify against it.

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