The number two Republican in the Senate is lambasting a media “shield law” proposed by New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer, potentially imperiling its shot at passage.
“This is a bad idea and one whose time has not come,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX), the Senate minority whip, told Breitbart News in an exclusive interview. “Believe me, we will not be rolled over.”
Schumer’s “Free Flow of Information Act” passed the Senate Judiciary Committee in September, and he recently said he already has the 60 votes needed to pass the bill on the floor. “We’ll get a few more Republicans, not many more, but we have the 60 votes,” Schumer told reporters in New York last week.
He’s bluffing, Cornyn retorts.
“If he had the votes to pass it, it already would have been passed,” Cornyn says, adding, “This isn’t about passing legislation, this is about distracting the public’s attention and changing the subject from the failed policies of this administration. I think you could put this in that same category.”
Schumer’s proposal would exempt a “covered journalist” from subpoenas and other legal requirements to expose their confidential sources in leak investigations and other areas. Other lawmakers have proposed similar ideas in the past, but the effort gained new momentum after a series of revelations about controversial tactics the Justice Department was using to target journalists.
For instance, the Department of Justice secretly monitored Fox News reporter James Rosen in the course of a leak investigation, even claiming in a court filing he was a subject of investigation himself. In another instance, the government had secretly monitored numerous phone lines used by the Associated Press, including one in the U.S. Capitol.
Cornyn says Schumer’s proposal is fatally flawed and may be an unworkable idea altogether.
“They want to pick and choose which journalists are covered,” the Texan Republican told Breitbart News. “In other words, if you’re a blogger they might not cover you, but if you work for the New York Times they might. Given the changes in the way we get information and the way we consume news, that really smacks to me in essence of government licensing who’s an official ‘journalist’ for the purposes of a shield law and who’s not. If there is one thing I can glean from the First Amendment, it is that government should not be in the business of licensing the news media.”
In practice, defining who is considered a “journalist” and protected under the law from having to disclose confidential sources is a thorny legal problem. On the one hand, the law’s drafters don’t want to provide blanket immunity to everyone. But anointing a government-approved class of scribes cuts against the nature of journalism, which almost by definition is frequently critical of the government.
“It’s totally inconsistent with the notion of a free press and the First Amendment,” Cornyn said.
His “fundamental problem” with the bill, though, is that it would exempt journalists from being subpoenaed to testify before a grand jury if they witness a crime.
“For example, if you’ve witnessed a crime taking place, you or I would both have to respond to a grand jury subpoena and come to testify to what we’ve seen. This idea of saying you could have information about a crime and you are immunized to having to partake in a basic act of American citizenship strikes me as pretty odd to say the least,” he says.
Cornyn, who just breezed past a primary challenge from Rep. Steve Stockman, notes it’s more than a bit ironic that Senate Democrats are championing the bill while their party’s president wreaks havoc on press freedoms.
Cornyn believes the bill’s timing – and the administration’s backing of it – appears to be aimed at alleviating criticism of the Justice Department’s secret attainment of Associated Press phone conversations and the administration’s similar actions against Fox News’s James Rosen, among other media targeting.
“You remember when this was recently resurrected?” Cornyn asks. “It was essentially an attempt to deflect… from the Department of Justice and this administration… the criticism they were taking [from] James Rosen and other traditional journalists. So, I really question the timing of all of this.”
Finally, Cornyn raises concerns about the proposal’s champion – Schumer.
The mere fact that Schumer is the one pushing this bill is something that should send alarm bells off throughout the Congress, Cornyn says.
“My antennae are always very sensitive whenever he is on the march,” he says, noting the New York Democrat openly declared war on the Tea Party in a Center for American Progress speech earlier this year.
Cornyn says that the bill would very likely exclude bloggers and would definitely exclude citizen journalists and other new media practitioners, those who may practice journalism but not in the employ of a major newspaper or television network, from being government-defined “journalists.” As such, it could end up hurting conservatives because many of the most widely-read new media figures are on the right.
“Well, you remember, a few years ago there was a discussion about the Fairness Doctrine, and whether they would go after talk radio,” Cornyn says.
“Talk radio, I think, the left feels as a threat. Now, you know, you start to put the dots together and the FCC’s recent discussion about placing monitors in newsrooms, you begin to see that this administration wants to control the information that people get and particularly any information that might be critical of them – which is, as you pointed out in the first instance… the function of a free press: to give people unbiased and factual information they can use to make their own decisions, not to collaborate with government in squashing speech that people find unfavorable,” he adds.
Cornyn says he will “absolutely” be whipping against the bill and doubts the Republican-controlled House would pass it anyway.