For the press to keep the public informed, the press itself must be informed. This seems an uncontroversial statement – but supporters and opponents of a federal shield law have different takes on its implications.
Proponents of such a law argue that the press is better informed when journalists can assure their sources anonymity particularly when those sources have highly sensitive information, perhaps pertaining to the government. As the Los Angeles Times argues:
The Times and other major news organizations would prefer that every source for a news story be identified. But whether the subject is the Los Angeles Police Department’s past spying on political leaders or the rendition of suspected terrorists to black sites abroad, some vital reporting is possible only if sources are promised anonymity. Without it, they won’t share information with the media.
As the Times notes, this argument and others in favor of a national shield law have been made since the 1970s, when the Supreme Court held, in Branzburg v. Hayes, that the First Amendment did not prohibit a reporter from being forced to disclose his sources. While almost all states have either statutes or cases preventing forced disclosure, no such shield exists at the federal level.
If such a shield law does pass and watchers deem it more likely to pass under President Obama’s administration than before” will it give journalists and their sources the security they want?
Last fall, the White House’s proposed version initially caused an outcry among journalists, who believed the administration had abandoned Obama’s prior promises. As the Washington Post wrote:
. . . the White House sent the Judiciary Committee legislative language providing little protection for journalists. It seemed to betray President Obama’s promise to support a judicial balancing test between the public interest in newsgathering and the need to compel disclosure of a reporter’s sources.
The White House then proposed a compromise that seemed to satisfy the major news outlets. As the Washington Post explained:
Under the latest proposal, in both civil and criminal cases the government (or another party seeking disclosure) would have to demonstrate that the confidential information it seeks from a journalist is essential to resolving the case and that it has exhausted all reasonable alternative sources. Judges would weigh the public interest in thorough newsgathering against the interest in disclosing the source. The balancing tests are calibrated depending on the nature of the case . . . . The balancing test also covers cases involving leaks of classified information (with the journalist again bearing the burden of proof), unless the information sought would be needed to stop a terrorist attack or significant and articulable harm to national security, in which case disclosure would be compelled. As in previous versions, the statute would not protect anyone who is affiliated with a terrorist organization or who has been designated a terrorist by the federal government.
It is difficult to find the appropriate line between the public’s interest in newsgathering and the public’s interest in protection of confidential government information, which is what opponents of the a federal shield law argue is at stake. Michael Hayden, former CIA and NSA director, calls the proposed law a â€œsolution in search of a problem. He criticizes a bill that he argues would:
. . . shift . . . national security responsibility from an elected (and accountable) president, who may have to answer for an attack on the country or its troops, to a judiciary whose role is generally not to make national security policy or balance risks to the country’s security.
At the same time, however, Hayden writes that he is not insensitive to the principles of the First Amendment, to the role of the press in our democracy or to the delicate balance and inherent tension between security and openness. It remains to be seen what Congress sensitivity to this tension will be.