Monday, September 12, 2005

Shielding a Basic Freedom

The New York Times

Shielding a Basic Freedom

For 69 long days, Judith Miller, a reporter for The New York Times, has been sitting in a Virginia jail as punishment for doing her job. It should be clear by now that keeping Ms. Miller behind bars for refusing to testify in an investigation into how the name of a C.I.A. operative was leaked to another journalist concerns more than one reporter or one news organization or even one prosecutor's investigation. It increasingly endangers one of the pillars of the nation's freedoms: an unfettered press telling the public what is really going on. It is time for those in Congress who talk about freedom so eloquently and so often to stand up for this basic principle.

Some members of Congress have proposed a federal shield law that would protect the right of journalists to refuse to identify confidential sources except in extreme cases of imminent national danger. But those efforts appear stalled. The Department of Justice did not even bother appearing at the only hearing this year on the subject. We don't want the issue to fall to the bottom of a pile that includes Supreme Court nominations.

The District of Columbia and every state except Wyoming offer legal protections to reporters. These laws make it possible for whistle-blowers or insiders to let out the truth. Think about the Watergate burglary or the deadly addictiveness of tobacco or the stories about how the government was ill prepared for 9/11. In such cases, press secretaries and public relations people are paid not to give out the whole story. Instead, inside sources trust reporters to protect their identities so they can reveal more than the official line. Without that agreement and that trust between reporter and source, the real news simply dries up, and the whole truth steadily recedes behind a wall of image-mongering, denial and even outright lies.

There is legislation with bipartisan backing in the House and Senate that deserves immediate consideration. The bills offer protections from subpoenas issued to reporters in federal courts that are similar to those recognized by the states. They would require journalists to reveal confidential sources only for imminent threats to national security. The bills are a good way to balance the public's right to know with the fair administration of justice.