September 09, 2013 Articles

And You Call Yourself a Journalist!?

A recent Fourth Circuit decision intensified the debate surrounding the new federal shield bill.

By Jonathan Peters – September 9, 2013

The spring and summer of 2013 did not signal the high-water mark of press freedom in the United States. In May, the Department of Justice (DOJ) confirmed that it had obtained months of phone records of Associated Press reporters and a “portfolio of information” about a Fox News correspondent—all obtained to investigate the sources of certain leaks and possibly to intimidate leakers. Criticism of the DOJ was swift and harsh, and it came from all directions, with Lucy Dalglish, dean of the journalism school at the University of Maryland, putting it best: “The message is loud and clear that if you work for the federal government and talk to a reporter that we will find you.”

To reassure the press that it would not be “dragged into a mass hunt for government leakers,” Attorney General Eric Holder announced a new set of guidelines to limit the discretion of DOJ lawyers to obtain reporters’ records, and President Barack Obama began pushing for a shield bill that would allow reporters in some cases to protect their confidential sources and data. He asked Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY) to reintroduce the Free Flow of Information Act of 2009, a shield bill negotiated between the journalism industry and the White House. (It died in January 2011, when the 111th Congress ended).

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