President Barack Obama’s proposed media shield law wouldn’t actually shield the media for government overreach and abuse. The law is really more a show of good faith than an aggressive attempt to protect the nation’s reporters, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney essentially admitted Wednesday.
During his daily press briefing Carney inadvertently confirmed what reporters and legal scholars have been saying for days – President Obama and Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-N.Y.) media shield law wouldn’t have stopped the federal government from conducting secret surveillance on reporters at the Associated Press, nor would it have prevented DOJ’s investigation into Fox News’ James Rosen.
“I’m not suggesting that the media shield law if it were to pass tomorrow and be signed into law next week would end the discussion or would solve the challenges that this issue represents and contains within it, but he does believe that more needs to be done,” Carney said. “That’s why he has long supported a media shield law.”
The bill, which is similar to the one Schumer co-sponsored with former Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) in 2009, would require prosecutors to take every possible action to obtain the information it needs before violating reporters’ privacy. It would also require a court to sign off on a prosecutor’s effort to subpoena a reporter. But there’s a catch: if the Attorney General deems the investigation a matter of ‘national security,’ then the government is free to violate reporters’ First Amendment rights.
The legislation made it out of committee in ’09 but was never brought to the Senate floor, in part because the Wikileaks scandal took place soon after. Obama requested that Schumer introduce the bill into the Senate last week after the Associated Press told Congress DOJ had secretly subpoenaed reporters’ phone records.
One can only hope that the bill’s reincarnate won’t even make it that far. The legislation will not protect journalists. It merely changes the method in which the federal government can obtain the information, a fact that The Washington Post pointed out earlier this month.
“Now, it’s important to remember: virtually the only time the government subpoenas reporters, it involves leak investigations into stories by national security reporters. So it’s hard to see how this bill will significantly help improve press freedom,” Trevor Timm, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation and a board member of the Freedom of the Press Foundation, wrote in a blog post last week. “Worse, there’s a strong argument that passing the bill as it ended in 2010 will weaken rights reporters already have and make it easier for the government to get sources from reporters.”
President Obama and the White Press Secretary have refused to comment on the investigations. However, Obama said last week that he will make “no apologies” for DOJ’s pursuit of information it believes to be vital to keeping the United States safe. “Leaks related to national security can put people at risk, they can put men and women in uniform that I’ve sent into the battlefield at risk,” he said. “U.S. national security is dependent upon those folks being able to operate with confidence that folks back home have their backs, so they’re not just left out there high and dry,” he added.
The President also said a “balance” must be struck between liberty and security.
“We don’t question their right to conduct these sorts of investigations. We just think they went about it the wrong way — so sweeping, so secretively, so abusively and harassingly and overbroad that it is an unconstitutional act,” the Associated Press’ President Gary Pruitt said in response on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”
The President is right that the security of the United States is sacrosanct. However, he and his administration are wrong to secretly investigate reporters or to punish them for doing their job, which is to report the news and protect their sources. If government officials fear they can’t privately report misconduct or important information the government is inappropriately keeping from the people, the rights and freedoms of all Americans will be in serious jeopardy.
The President’s media shield law is not a “balance” between Americans’ Constitutional rights and the government’s responsibility to keep Americans safe. It’s merely another attempt to make President Obama look good that really achieves nothing.