By Joel Thurtell
Would some wise person in the media please explain to me how the government’s surveillance of The Associated Press’s phones translates into a new push for a so-called federal “shield” to insulate mainstream journalists from subpoenas?
Somehow, news of a government inquiry into leaks to The AP has morphed into an urgent need to extend non-existent First Amendment privileges to select reporters.
Who would benefit from this confusion?
Oh, I guess the same people who would have benefited if the US Supreme Court had bought their argument in the 1930s that the National Labor Relations Act guaranteeing union rights did not apply to newspapers because, so newspapers claimed, “freedom of the press” meant freedom from unions.
Or it might have been the same people who argued, again in the same time frame, that the First Amendment exempted newspapers from paying federal taxes.
At various times, newspapers have argued they should be exempt from child labor laws that would have regulated paper carriers, pure food and drug laws they perceived as a threat to advertisers, the Sherman anti-trust law that banned newspaper monopolies, and a post office law that required sworn statements — that is, the truth — about circulation.
“It’s all about me” is the real core value underlying newspapers’ seemingly high-minded call for protection from subpoenas.
Newspapers and now, by extension, news media, would like the right to collect information from whomsoever they in their exalted wisdom deem a fit source without having to reveal to lowly mortals where their sacrosanct data came from. As with child labor, unions, taxes, food and drug laws, the news media would like to be subjected to a separate standard of quality which is no standard at all.
Is the source credible? Let us decide on our own, cry the media. We have the First Amendment, therefore, butt out.
Did we verify our source’s information by testing it against information from other sources?
Hey, we don’t have to do that. We are the media. Trust us — we have our standards.
What are our standards? None of your goddam business. First Amendment.
From a practical standpoint in news gathering, such a privilege relieves journalists of responsibility for making sure what they print is accurate. Oh yes, there still are libel laws, but when it comes to defamation, again thanks to press litigation, the government faces tougher standards of proof than regular folk.
It’s all about journalists — some journalists, that is — being somehow better qualified as citizens than the rest of us and therefore endowed with a special right not to respond to court demands for evidence.
I say “some” journalists, because the proposed federal shield law would exclude all but credentialed journalists. In other words, bloggers like me would go to jail for refusing to give up sources, but reporters from media outlets deemed acceptable by this nefarious bill would have a “get-out-of-jail-free card.”
What makes a reporter from The New York Times or, say, my hometown Plymouth Observer, better than me?
Why do those “credentialed” reporters get to thumb their noses at federal judges when, other facts being the same, I would be sent to the slammer?
In my view, we all should be sent to the slammer for showing contempt of a federal court’s need for names or information.
I’m not in a bargaining position here. I’m not willing to shut up if the word “blogger” is added to the proposed legislation.
I just don’t see what makes a “credentialed” journalist somehow superior in moral or personal quality to ordinary citizens who are required to give evidence in civil and criminal cases.
And please don’t try to feed me that “chilling effect” garbage.
Show me evidence that the number of sources — leakers, whistle blowers — has somehow diminished as a result of government prosecutions. There is no “chilling effect” – for better or for worse, leakers with their own lofty or sordid motives will always be there for reporters.
In future columns, I’ll discuss why so-called “press freedoms” are derived from the “freedom of speech” part of the First Amendment, while the “free press” clause is an empty bag. And I’ll report on a singular case where the Obama administration has seen fit not to prosecute government officials who illegally leaked federal grand jury information to a reporter. Yes — I’ll be writing about the Ashenfelter-Convertino case again.
But first, will someone please help me understand how government surveillance of some AP phones equates to a sudden strident call for exempting mainline reporters from giving evidence that all other mortals are required to provide?
 Theodore L. Glasser, “Objectivity and News Bias,” in Elliot D. Cohen, Ed., Philosophical Issues in Journalism, Oxford University Press, Oxford, New York, 1992, p. 178. Branzburg v. Hayes (No. 70-85) and No. 70-94, 358 Mass. 604, 266 N.E. 2d 297, affirmed; No. 70-57, 434 F. 2d 1081, reversed., 1972, http://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/historics/USSC_CR_0408_0665_ZS.html, pp. 8-9.