Sen. Feinstein During ‘Shield’ Law Debate: ‘Real’ Journalists Draw Salaries

(TECH DIRT)   Legislators are still trying to put together a national “shield” law for journalists (this is the third such effort at a national level) and, as usual, are bogged down in a semantic debate about who should qualify for these protections. Despite “freedom of the press” being hardwired into the system and the fact that a government effort to protect journalists from its own actions (seeking to identify whistleblowers and sources in order to punish them or shut them up) lies somewhere between “ironic” and “disingenuous,” the pursuit of a credible “shield” law continues.

The bill’s definition of “journalist” seems straightforward enough.

The bill defines a journalist as a person who has a “primary intent to investigate events and procure material” in order to inform the public by regularly gathering information through interviews and observations.

It also adds this stipulation, which is a bit more troublesome.

The person also must intend to report on the news at the start of obtaining any protected information and must plan to publish that news.

I can see this stipulation working against whoever the government feels is worthy of the title “journalist.” News develops. It seldom has a distinct starting point. Of course, if someone is a journalist, it stands to reason that they’re always “planning” to publish their findings. But that might be a lot harder to prove when the government starts slinging subpoenas.

If someone sends a tip to a journalist, it may not be immediately evident that it is newsworthy. It might be some time before it’s determined to be important, newsworthy and its source in need of protection. It’s a strange stipulation and one that seems to poke some compromising holes in the “shield.”

But onto the “who’s really a journalist” argument. Some elected officials feel the language in the bill isn’t specific enough. One in particular, Dianne Feinstein, repeated the stupid but inevitable phrase that always accompanies discussions related to shield laws:

Feinstein suggested that the definition comprise only journalists who make salaries, saying it should be applied just to “real reporters.”

This is nothing new for Feinstein, who’s (along with Sen. Dick Durbin) previously made the argument that acts of journalism can only be performed by major news agencies, cutting everyone else out of the protective loop. This is a protective move based partially on ignorance and partially on the reality that major news networks are easier to control, seeing as most aren’t willing to give up access to the Beltway by pissing off its residents.

Sadly, this sort of reactionary ignorance isn’t limited solely to government representatives. This same sort of statement has been made by published authors to demean the self-published and by old school journalists to demean bloggers, serial Tweeters and pretty much everyone not associated with a sinking masthead. Whenever someone assumes they’re capable of determining who is or isn’t a real whatever, they’re usually speaking from a position of privilege, one that can only be maintained as long as the status remains quo.

The same goes for government officials arguing over the definition of “journalist.” It’s someone who performs the act of journalism. It’s as simple as that. But if you accept this definition, then you put the government at a greater “risk” of not being able to pursue and punish those who expose its wrongdoing. Feinstein makes this governmental fear explicit in another comment.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., wondered whether it could be used to provide protections to employees of WikiLeaks, an organization that allows anonymous sources to leak information to the public.

“I’m concerned this would provide special privilege to those who are not reporters at all,” she said.

Two things to note: One, the government would hate to see people like Snowden or Manning go unpunished because someone at Wikileaks was able to deflect subpoenas and court orders with these protections. Second, this isn’t just a government push — the news industry itself has expressed a willingness to sacrifice Wikileaks in order to expedite passage of a shield law.

It seems rather unlikely the government would extend this protection to entities like Wikileaks (especially not with major news agencies on board with selling out Wikileaks, etc.), but at least Sen. Schumer pointed out that Feinstein’s belief that “real” equals “drawing a salary” was a very ignorant take on the current reality.

“The world has changed. We’re very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn’t be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we’ve ensured that,” Schumer said. “But there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we’re used to. They should not be excluded from this bill.”

If this bill is ever going to provide real protection for journalists, it will first have to recognize that journalism isn’t defined by the journalist’s employer, paycheck or association with a large media company. It’s an act and it can be performed by nearly anyone. More importantly, the bill should be equally as concerned with building in strong consequences for government actions that undermine this protection. Without these, entities like the DOJ will hardly be dissuaded from using “unofficial channels” to seize phone records or trace email conversations in order to hunt down protected sources.


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