Inquirer Editorial: The war on journalism

Historic press credentials issued to an Inquirer reporter.
Historic press credentials issued to an Inquirer reporter. (File)
Posted: July 26, 2013

A ruling from a Virginia-based federal appeals court last week raises the stakes exponentially in the post-9/11 struggle over press freedoms - an increasingly heated jousting match between the Obama White House and the media that could, in the view of one dissenting judge, determine nothing less than the fate of "the free flow of information in our society."

In ruling 2-1 that a New York Times reporter and author must testify in the criminal trial of a former CIA official charged with leaking secrets, the Fourth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals swept aside years of legal thinking sympathetic to reporters' right to protect their confidential sources under the First Amendment. The ability to shield such sources is often critical to exposing all manner of abuses, from misspending of public funds to official corruption to violation of civil rights.

The Newspaper Association of America said in a statement that the ruling "sets a terrible legal precedent." A joint brief filed on behalf of more than two dozen media outlets contends that if the ruling stands, journalists' "ability to report on matters of substantial public concern will be significantly impaired."

Following the recent disclosure of the U.S. Justice Department's unprecedented and broad search of Associated Press reporters' phone records as part of a probe into leaks of government information, the court ruling makes the case even stronger for enacting a federal shield law.

President Obama has recently ordered welcome steps to ease the chill on information-gathering - notably Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr.'s announcement of tighter guidelines on seeking reporters' records. But such policies can be altered or even scrapped at the discretion of authorities.

Only a shield law would give the public adequate assurance that the media are free to provide the government oversight the founders envisioned. Action could be coming on shield legislation proposed by Sens. Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Lindsey Graham (R., S.C.), who make sensible exceptions for disclosures that could prevent a terrorist attack or other threat to national security. Obama himself was right to urge Congress to pass such a bill.

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