Shield, sham, shame: journalism in denial

Americans invaded Iraq thinking Saddam Hussein had WMDs. That turned out to be false but nearly one in three of us still believe the lie. Are they fools, or were they mezmerized by the chorus of pre-war stories quoting “officials speaking under the condition of anonymity.” In 2003 the New York Times used that phrase 118 times in its Iraq coverage. (I got that number by querying its electronic archives on the Nexis news database.)  Anonymous sources sought to discredit Joseph Wilson, the diplomat who debunked the pre-war WMD claims. They even blew the cover of his wife, then-CIA case officer Valerie Plame and in so doing nearly blew the lid off their whisper campaign. During a federal investigation into the Plame leak several reporters were court-ordered to reveal their sources and one, the Times’ Judith Miller, spent nearly three months in jail before she testified.

Now the press wants Congress to pass a federal shield law, as if the problem were that journalists were compelled to tell who fed them lies, instead of how our supposed media watchdogs were tricked into misleading the nation into war. 

Congress, which also swallowed the war bait, appears eager to mollify the media by passing a purported shield law by a subtantial if not quite veto-proof bipartisan majority. The legislation has a stirring title: The Free Flow of Information Act of 2007. Editorial writers call it necessary to quell the regrettable and new-found proclivity of federal prosecutors to haul journalists into court to name sources or turn over unaired videos. One such editorial, published the Arizona Republic and reposted by the American Society of Newspaper Editors, argued that the shield law would encourage people to come out of the shadows and help reporters bring wrongdoings to light:

“Journalists don’t get much sympathy these days, but this development is a threat to self-government. Bureaucracies don’t willingly reveal their illegal, immoral or incompetent behavior. Whistleblowers, who need confidentiality to keep their jobs, and the press guard against such corruption.”

That describes the noble mission to which journalists aspire, to which I aspire. But as a member of the working press –since 1992 I have been an ill-tempered reporter for a middling metropolitan daily — I have found that many stories are like onions. You peel back layer after layer of alleged facts only to discover that very often there’s nothing inside.

With that in mind let’s look past the title of the Free Flow of Information Act and study the 1,538 words inside. The bill gets down to business in Section 2: Compelled Disclosure From Covered Persons. Here lawmakers describe all the circumstances under which journalists may be legally forced to reveal sources or turn over unpublished research. The causes range from the obvious — you interview Osama bin Laden and refuse to say where you met — to the inexplicable. Take this clause, for instance, in which Congress ordains that “disclosure of the identity of such a(n anomyous) source is necessary to identify a person who has disclosed a trade secret.”

From those words I gather that, to the extent that this provides reporters a shield, it would have to be lowered should I prematurely publish the color of the next generation iPod. In fact nearly every word in this proposed law has to do with forcing testimony. When I first read the bill I thought that truth-in-advertising laws would compel Congress to title this turkey the How to Subpoena Journalists Act of 2007. But it turns out the system provides an even better summary. Every bill is required to boil down the purpose of the legislation into a sentence. In this case the stated purpose is:

“To maintain the free flow of information to the public by providing conditions for the federally compelled disclosure of information by certain persons connected with the news media.”

Those old enough to remember Vietnam will recognize such logic. I am flabbergasted that professional journalists, who generally support this bill, could describe this as a shield law. I can only assume they’ve never read it. And I am aware that there is a controversy in the journalism community between the paid professionals and the unpaid bloggers over who gets covered. At the beginning of October Editor & Publisher ran a story suggesting that a broad definition, one which included every Joe and Jane Blogger would, never make it through Congress and could invite abuses. In fact Congress has narrowed the definition of journalist to people who get paid and have supervisors. E&P quotes Lucy Daglish, executive director of Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press as saying, “I am happy with that definition.” 

Citizens journalists are not. Take Josh Wolf, the freelance videographer and political activist who spent 226 days in federal prison for refusing to turn over unaired videotaped footage of a demonstration during which a San Franciso policer officer was assaulted and a police car was vandalized. In a recent blog entry for online news service CNet, Wolf decried the narrowing of the definition to exclude persons like himself, whose journalism is more often motivated by politics than by pay. “We do need a Federal Shield Law, more than ever,” Wolf wrote, “but we need good laws not watered-down legislation that provides very limited protections to a narrow category of journalists.”

The limits of those protections become clear when we ask whether the act would have shielded Judith Miller had it been in effect when she was subpoened.  The law says that a journalist can be compelled to disclose a source “essential to identify in a criminal investigation or prosecution a person who without authorization disclosed properly classified information.” That describes the investigation into the Plame affair.

So here we have a shield law that would not shield fringe journalist Josh Wolf, nor would it shield Pulitzer Prize-winner Judith Miller.  That doesn’t sound like much of a shield but you’d never know that from reading newspapers, and therein lies the real shame. More and more of the words we read in newspapers seem to fall somewhere between the mellifluous and the mendacious. Jouralists should revere the meaning of words. They are all that hold us accountable for our actions. But by common agreement and for a shockingly long period of time, we appear to have agreed, news makers and news gatherers alike, to slide down that slippery slope that comes with reliance on euphemisms.  Former television broadcaster Edwin Newman flagged this trend in his 1974 book, “Strictly Speaking”, in which he decried the “banalities, cliches, pomposities, redundancies and catchphrases” that had even then begun to infect public discourse.

Three decades later this cancer has spread to every part of the language of politics. Newspapers have institutionalized the spin doctor and embraced the sound byte. Journalism seems to have adopted the philosophy of deconstruction, the cynical belied that words have no intrinsic meaning, that we can twist them like pretzels so long as enough people nod.

I think words have both meaning and power, and that they are the only tools we have, as citizens and journalists, to hold our leaders accountable. The Free Flow of Information Act is a joke. Unfortunately, the joke is on us. 

(P.S. I’ve been wrestling with this piece for weeks and I’m sure it could use more editing than my 14-year-old son, Aeneas, was able to give it just now when he proofread. Comments, criticisms, revisions welcome. I’d like to get this shorter, sharper and stronger and get it into mass media as an op-ed piece. Tom Abate)