ShareThis Page
News Columnists

Bush: Don't shield journalists

| Thursday, April 17, 2008

WASHINGTON -- The bad news last week for conservative Republican Rep. Mike Pence was private confirmation that his proposed law protecting journalists from runaway judges was opposed by President George W. Bush himself, not just inflexible Justice Department lawyers. The good news this week for Pence was an unexpected public endorsement by Bush's successor heading the Republican Party, John McCain.

That aligns McCain with his two Democrat rivals, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton -- reflecting bipartisan support for a shield law. Pence has spent three years seeking federal protection for journalists pressured to reveal confidential sources. His measure passed the House overwhelmingly last October, and a shield bill has cleared the Senate Judiciary Committee. But the issue has been kept off the Senate floor by vigorous opposition from Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl.

Federal shield legislation became more urgent March 7, when drastic financial penalties were imposed on a reporter ordered to name all her sources. Opposition to relief by Bush and the Senate Republican leadership questions whether the Grand Old Party stands for limited government or, in pursuit of global terrorism, disdain for constitutional liberties.

No shield law had reached the floor in Congress for 30 years, but the climate was changed by pressure on journalists by Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald in the CIA leak case, including an 85-day stay in prison for New York Times reporter Judith Miller. The House voted 398-21 for a shield law with all the Republican leadership on board, despite opposition from the Justice Department.

Journalists generally are not popular with conservative Republicans such as Pence, an evangelical and former chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, who challenged the party establishment last year in running for minority leader. Pence summarized his commitment to shield legislation in a speech he delivered to the House March 12.

U.S. District Judge Reggie Walton of Washington had just levied fines against former USA Today reporter Toni Locy escalating to $5,000 a day for failure to reveal her confidential sources in reporting the 2001 anthrax attacks. Walton's decision, now under appeal, stipulated that neither USA Today nor anybody else could help pay the fines for Locy. Pence told the House that Walton's conduct showed the need to protect "the one time-tested way of holding the government accountable" and "ensuring the free flow of information to the American people."

In the first week of April, the administration unlimbered its big guns. Attorney General Michael Mukasey, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Director of National Intelligence J.M. McConnell sent letters to the Senate complaining that shield legislation made it too difficult to catch leakers. Pence, to his dismay, last week received the clear message that this was also the president's view.

Considering McCain's hard line on national security, Pence expected no more than neutrality from a critic of The New York Times' disclosure of the government's communications surveillance. Instead, McCain told the annual meeting of The Associated Press Monday that, after "a hard time deciding," he "narrowly" endorsed shield legislation as not only "a license to do harm" but also "a license to do good, to disclose injustice and unlawfulness and inequities, and to encourage their swift correction."

Pence would like to make that case face-to-face with George W. Bush. But this president is not easy to see even for a prominent congressman of his own party, and Pence may have to settle for talking to a senior aide. Nevertheless, Pence is hard to discourage and still wants that meeting, to enlist his president in helping Congress pass its first press freedom legislation since the Bill of Rights.

Robert Novak is a columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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.

click me