13 May 2008

"Reporters' Conflict of Interest Act"

There's been some noise lately concerning a federal shield law for journalists, perhaps as a way to break free the FISA Amendments Act.

There is currently a House version and a Senate version of the federal shield law. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has a good summary of the differences between the two.

I strongly oppose the current House version based on this phrase defining a covered person:

a person who regularly ... for a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or for substantial financial gain
David Ardia summarized well what's wrong with this definition at the Citizen Media Law Project:
This change significantly narrows the bill's coverage and is plainly aimed to exclude non-traditional journalists. But it doesn't just exclude those whom some in Congress derisively call "bloggers." The new definition would likely exclude many freelance journalists who must rely on other work to supplement their incomes. Do we really want judges to be deciding whether a journalist is earning enough money to qualify for protection?

More to the point, is financial remuneration the criterion we want to be using when we draw the line between those who are entitled to engage in journalism under the protection of a federal shield law and those who must venture forth unprotected? It seems to me the answer is no. To limit the privilege only to journalists who receive "substantial financial gain" misses the point of how media and journalism are evolving. Most crucially, it misses the growing -- and essential -- role of citizen media creators. They are the closest analog since the nation's founding to the Tom Paine-style pamphleteers the First Amendment was designed, in part, to encourage.
Regardless of whether or not you think there should be a federal shield law, take note who in the news media is worried (or not) about the public's right to know that the bill the "pro-jos" are lobbying for would exclude the citizen journalist from it's protection. Any journalist that supports the House version and says a federal shield law is needed to protect the public and not the news media is a hypocrite.