Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Shielding Machiavelli

Senators Christopher Dodd, Dem, and Richard Lugar, Rep, have an Op-Ed piece in USA Today saying why we need and why they are proposing a federal shield law. From the read of their opinion, the shield law is something this country sorely needs. NOT!

Why take a bad habit in journalism and then protect it with a law that is sure to reinforce this bad behavior? While Sens. Dodd and Lugar write in lofty terms of protecting whistleblowers, exposing corruption and malfeasance, and the free exercise of the First Amendment, those situations are rarely the case. Who would be protected mostly by a shield law are leakers for political reasons and the journalistic hacks that depend on them for a livelihood.

A journalist who depends on leaks is no journalist. He or she is a tool of the leaker. If your job is to provide information, how are you doing your job when you conceal the most important bit of news in your story? Who and why was information provided? You can hardly read a news story dealing with Washington or government operation that doesn’t contain an un-attributable source. Unnamed sources are like a plague in the body of journalism. We are eat up with it. The practice has become the standard way of reporting on our government.

Scooter Libby was leaking information to Judith Miller to be published in the New York Times just prior to Cheney’s appearance on one of the Sunday morning news shows so he could refer to that as a fact instead of using their own selected -- and wrong -- intelligence. This type of administrative spin has gone on before, it is going on now, and it will go on even more so if there is a federal shield law.

This law would also shield those who believe that the right leak at the right time would enhance their own career by torpedoing someone else’s. They would be using journalists, and those people masquerading as journalists would have a job because they brought in another story with an astonishing new byte. The MSM would be monetarily enriched from increased readers or viewers because of their sensational story and professionally diminished because the true news is who leaked the information and why and it would go unreported. With the shield law this will be even more so, because the leaker’s identity would be protected because the reporter would be shielded.

The public would be better served by an open and transparent news world. Let the leakers material go on the Op-Ed or society page, stop turning the front page into a gossip broadside.

I admire whistleblowers for having the guts or ethics or both to standup and point their finger at wrong doing. The best ones are the ones that put their name and reputation on the line -- less so those that speak only on grounds that they not be identify. Nevertheless, the shield law would protect far more of the wrong kind of leakers, those operating a hidden agenda that has nothing to do with ethics or wrong doing. They are doing the wrong doing because they are compromising the public information exchange for their own selfish reasons.

So it comes down to whether we want to protect reporters who receive an exposé from some conscientious sole inside the organization or set up a situation that will bring back “yellow journalism” in a whole new form. You will not need a public relations department when you can control the news through a protected means. Do we save the arm but loose the patient through wholesale corruption of the body?

The shield law is way bad news.
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