When President Obama and New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer join forces to ostensibly protect freedom of speech and the press, it’s time for believers in the First Amendment to take to the battlements.
The president, under fire for his recent, multiple assaults on the freedom of reporters to do their job, is looking for cover, which is no doubt why his good friend Mr. Schumer recently got a call from the White House suggesting he reintroduce an “updated” version of a press “shield law” that’s made periodic appearances in Congress since 2007.
Mr. Schumer was, of course, more than happy to comply, and the president’s freedom-loving attorney general, Eric Holder Jr., quickly chimed in with support for the idea. Those facts alone force one to question the substance of the proposed law and ask as one always must when a crime has been or is about to be committed: “Who benefits?”
In this instance, it certainly won’t be the First Amendment or press freedom, both of which will fall not into the category of beneficiaries, but of victims. The established media will benefit, however, as the proposed law will banish bloggers and those who are part of what has come to be known as the “new media” into the outer darkness.
The president, too, will benefit because he will be able to say he supports press freedom while his Justice Department continues to harass and prosecute those reporters who exercise that freedom in ways he doesn’t appreciate.
New York Times reporter James Risen continues to refuse to reveal the names of confidential sources the administration wants to go after. A president Mr. Risen described just last week as “the greatest enemy of press freedom that we have encountered in at least a generation” can be assumed to be motivated by something less than a concern for that freedom.
Mr. Schumer, New York Democrat, is not the only politician who reads the First Amendment as if it were written specifically to protect his rights and no one else’s, but he may be the most vocal.
He’s made no bones about his desire to use the government to shut down the Tea Party and has said extraordinary steps should be taken to shut up the Koch brothers whose utterances, like Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, has described as “un-American.” So when Mr. Schumer and his friends in the Senate rally behind legislation they claim will “shield” the press from government interference, one has to ask which press and how.
Mr. Schumer’s earlier bill was negotiated between the newspaper industry and the administration, and while it allegedly protected reporters from being required willy-nilly to reveal confidential sources, it tilted heavily toward government in cases supposedly involving national security.
Even that version raised questions as to whether it would amount to an “Official Secrets Act,” which would allow the government to go after reporters and their sources who reveal anything even touching on government-defined national security issues.
The current version of the Free Flow of Information Act would “shield” the press from government interference in a much more dangerous way — opening the door to the licensing of reporters. Its “protections” would apply only to “covered journalists” involved in “the regular gathering, preparation, collection, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting or publishing” of news.
Such a person would qualify if he or she has “experience” as a journalist and has “substantially contributed, as an author, editor, photographer or producer, to a significant number of articles, stories, programs or publications” over the past 20 years. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, California Democrat and Mr. Schumer’s sister-in-arms, told the Judiciary Committee that a provision that limits coverage to those involved in “legitimate news gathering” is the key to the bill because it will exclude “hate websites and other persons who are not actually engaged in the pursuit of journalism.”
Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican, in objecting to the language of the bill, observed accurately that “any carve-out of a particular media for protection and special treatment is in effect government licensing of legitimate media” and offered an amendment extending coverage to anyone covered by the First Amendment. That amendment was rejected by the Judiciary Committee.
Mr. Schumer and his friends hate nontraditional journalism because bloggers and others they view as illegitimate simply because they don’t agree with them and traditional journalists in the newspaper, magazine and broadcast news services view them as competition to quashed if at all possible.
The road Mr. Schumer wants to take us down is one that many, mostly totalitarian and authoritarian states, pursue with a vengeance. The Center for International Media Assistance defines licensing as “all the ways governments — and the journalism establishments they favor — have a strong say in determining who may practice journalism and who may not.”
In some countries, journalists themselves, acting as a guild, use licensing to restrict access and competition. In others, the government simply licenses only those who follow the official line or who can be forced to do so by the threat of revocation.
Mr. Cornyn is correct. The bill should be defeated in the name of the First Amendment. Perhaps Sens. Schumer and Feinstein would benefit from reading the State Department’s own digital publication on government licensing: ” when a government asserts authority to determine who can and cannot cover the news, it claims, says Leonard Sussman of Freedom House, ‘a license to censor.’”
Or perhaps they already have.
David A. Keene is opinion editor of The Washington Times.