WASHINGTON — Sen. Arlen Specter, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said yesterday the jailing of journalist Judith Miller convinced him that a federal shield law that would protect journalists is necessary.
"My own sense it that it ought to be a very serious national security concern before the privilege goes and someone is held in contempt and subject to going to jail," Specter told attendees at the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference.
Specter, R-Pa., said journalists do more to shed light on corruption and mismanagement "than all congressional oversight combined," but the fear of being jailed can have a chilling effect.
It would probably take a fair amount of momentum from media members for a federal law to protect reporters from having to identify their sources, Specter said. Several states have such a law.
Last year, Miller, who was then with The New York Times, was jailed for 85 days after she refused to cooperate with prosecutors in the Valerie Plame leak investigation.
She subsequently disclosed that the source who told her of Plame's CIA identity had been Vice President Dick Cheney's now-convicted former chief of staff, I. Lewis Libby.
Specter, who visited Miller in jail, said he was still trying to figure out why she was jailed.
The ASNE Reporter said Virginia Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher and Republican Mike Pence of Indiana told the conference about their efforts to create a federal shield law. Boucher said the bill they would cosponsor would likely be filed within two weeks.
“This is not about protecting reporters,” the ASNE Reporter quoted Pence as saying. “It’s about protecting the public’s right to know.”
Boucher predicted a “rapid journey through Judiciary (committee)” for the shield-law bill, and said he and Pence hoped the bill would make it "through the House by summer.”
As for a Senate timetable, ASNE's conference report said Specter suggested it might be two years before such legislation would pass.
Each house has its own version of the bill, but the legislators said they expected differences to be worked out in conference, ASNE reported.
A panel moderated by Ken Paulson, USA TODAY editor and former executive director of the First Amendment Center, surveyed a bleak scene for journalists trying to work under threats of subpoenas and jail over classified information and confidential sources. The panel was called "From Superman to Subpoenas: Defending a Free Press."
Editor & Publisher magazine quoted Paulson as telling the ASNE conference, “We were the good guys,” in past portrayals of journalists in movies and comics, including Superman's disguise as reporter Clark Kent. “Times have changed. You don’t see reporters cast in a good light anymore. Respect for our profession has declined.”
John Seigenthaler, legendary editor and First Amendment Center founder, said the challenge to the press was “stronger than ever before,” E&P reported. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a time when the cloak (of government secrecy) was more tightly wound. It has never been easy, but I don’t think it has ever been tougher than it is now.”
First Amendment Center vice president/executive director Gene Policinski cited the center's recent State of the First Amendment surveys that found 42% of the public says the press has too much freedom, and 83% say news-media bias is real. “It is a disturbing fact,” E&P quoted Policinski as saying. “It seems that the public has moved from criticism and through skepticism to cynicism — so free to distrust the press.”