02/24/2005: Journalistic Illusions
Don Wycliff (Public Editor of Chicago Tribune) and I have exchanged many e-mails over this "Journalistic Privileges & Shield" laws regarding the Valerie Plame outing by Robert Novak (Chicago Sun Times columnist and CNN commentator) and the Judith Miller & Matt Cooper requirement to testify and/or reveal their government sources. Don is one of the first of many serious and respected news paper media people who immediately recognized the underlying issues and problems in asserting some "generic, wholesale privilege to all journalist" in cases such as the Plame matter.
Today's column, Shield laws offer illusory protection is a "home run" effort to further that discussion.
"...I yield to no one in my abhorrence of government by secrecy. Almost from Day One the Bush administration has been a particularly egregious offender in this regard. Indeed, I think it is only in a Justice Department made in the image of John Ashcroft that a hunt for leakers at the White House could have become a Javert-like pursuit of two reporters.
That said, I have to confess my doubts about the proposed federal shield law. I wonder whether in supporting such legislation we may be trading our birthright--the splendid informational anarchy fostered by the 1st Amendment guarantee of press freedom--for a mess of pottage. I wonder whether we may not be trading occasional outrages like the Miller-Cooper case for the everyday certainty of uncertainty that goes with being licensed by the government.
You see, if the government gives journalists the right to be exempt from the normal obligations of citizenship, the government, ultimately, will get to decide who is a journalist. Of course nobody will admit that this is the case. They'll contrive some body of journalistic wise men and women, a college of cardinals, who will set standards and thresholds and regulations and such. But somebody will have to appoint those cardinals and, in the end, it will be the government that's in charge....
...If you think it was just by accident that Jeff Gannon, a.k.a. James Dale Guckert, got cleared to attend White House news briefings and a presidential news conference that you or I would have had to endure probing up to a body-cavity search to be cleared for, then you probably would welcome having a government Ministry of Truth deciding who gets licensed as a news gatherer.
If you think bloggers have been more an annoyance than anything else and that the journalistic universe ought to be limited to newspapers and three TV network news departments, you may like the idea of a government overseer licensing the respectable and keeping the riffraff out.
I hope I'm wrong about all this. But I've never been one who believes you can have your cake and eat it too."
Thanks for saying it so well and following up on the earlier columns and thoughts by Clarence Page and Steve Chapman...Great Job, again, Chicago Tribune!
Karen on 02.24.05 @ 07:00 AM CST