A 'shield law'? Think thrice?
By Colin McNickle
Published: Saturday, May 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Now comes Barack Obama, his Justice Department on the hook for a secret fishing expedition through the business and personal phone records of Associated Press employees (and who knows who else), suddenly full of manufactured outrage and promising the spied upon a big, juicy worm.
But the AP (and in the interest of full disclosure, I am a former AP reporter), and any media doing the rah-rah-sis-boom-bah for a “shield law,” should be careful for what they cheer. For a federal shield law would have the perverse effect of undermining the very press freedoms that proponents claim it would preserve.
This debate is a classic example, non-economic, of the “seen” and “unseen” lesson of 19th-century French political economist Frederic Bastiat:
“(A) habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.”
Unfortunately, our national decline in critical thinking skills prevents many people from contemplating the unforeseen on this and so many contemporary issues.
What most see with a federal shield law are “protections” for reporters — specifically, “reporters privilege,” the concept wherein reporters cannot be forced to divulge the confidential sources of their information in court, except in rare and extreme cases.
By extension, a shield law would, presumably, prevent the kind of clandestine fishing trip that the administration embarked on a year ago as it attempted to ferret out the source for an AP report detailing an equally clandestine anti-terrorist operation in Yemen. (The evidence now suggests the administration had no valid claim of “protecting national security” but was honked off that the AP broke the story before it could trumpet the operation itself.)
In general, a shield law would require, in most instances, the government, subpoena in hand, to inform the targeted media of its intent and to allow the media to challenge the subpoena in court. (That said, we don't even know if the Obama administration had a judge-issued subpoena or used a judge-less “national security letter” in the Yemen matter.)
But it's the unseen of a federal shield law that's just as chilling.
Such a law effectively would allow the government to determine who is and who isn't a journalist, de facto “licensing.”
Additionally, a shield law would allow Congress to grant a privilege that long has been a constitutional right, as enshrined in the First Amendment.
Then there's the slippery slope of “national security,” defined by the government, adjudicated by the courts and ripe for abuse by the former and inconsistent application by the latter.
A federal shield law for reporters would grant Congress a say in that which the First Amendment has said it has none for the past 222 years.
“Fixing” one government overreach with an even worse government overreach is only a greater tyranny.
Colin McNickle is Trib Total Media's director of editorial pages (412-320-7836 or firstname.lastname@example.org).
Show commenting policy
TribLive commenting policy
You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.
We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.
While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.
We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers.
We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.
We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.
We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.
We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.
- McCutchen proposes to girlfriend on DeGeneres show
- Police: Driver fell unconscious before Seton Hill bus crash
- Pirates make inquiry into former Cy Young winner Johan Santana
- Jeannette man accused in assault with tire iron
- Theft charges added against Penn Hills father, son accused in TV converter box scheme
- Starkey: NHL stuck in stone age
- For the rest of us: Festivus pole put up at Florida Capitol
- RBS paying $100M to settle US, NY sanction claims
- Pirates sign Morton to 3-year extension
- PNC plans to do away with tellers
- Steelers defense’s rapid decline looks similar to that of Steel Curtain’s