Congress Pushes Ahead with Journalist Shield Law

Congress Pushes Ahead with Journalist Shield Law

Congress has been wrestling with just how to define a journalist in this electronic age, and, despite Internet king Matt Drudge calling Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) a “fascist” for her definition, Washington is pushing ahead with the idea of creating some sort of shield law to protect journalists from prosecution.

On September 12, the Senate Judiciary Committee passed its first attempt to define what a journalist is, with Sen. Feinstein denigrating people that write for the internet as merely “17-year-old bloggers” that don’t deserve any shield. That comment is what drew Drudge’s ire.

This bill is all the more timely as the USA has been beset by a series of leaks out of Washington by individuals like Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange, and Bradley Manning releasing to the public thousands of pages of secret American documents.

In a scramble to stop such leaks, Obama’s Department of Justice under Attorney General Eric Holder grabbed the private phone records of a hundred journalists of the Associated Press without informing them that it had done so.

This outrageous action caused journalists across the country to criticize the Obama administration and to call for a law that would better shield them from unfair prosecution and pernicious investigations.

But who should be covered by such a law? That is what Congress is trying to deal with.

For her part, Sen. Feinstein wants to limit who is allowed to be called a “journalist.” The Senator introduced an amendment to the bill that defines a “journalist” as someone who reports news for “an entity or service that disseminates news and information” or conducts “legitimate news-gathering activities.” This would include freelance writers, part-time writers, and journalism students.

The proposed law, though, is still a bit vague on just what sort of “entity or service” really qualifies as the sort a “real journalist” would work for and leaves that fleeting definition up to government. This is a problem when one considers that this definition is what will be used to prosecute writers that the government feels stepped out of line on issues like national security.

This is, of course, what Matt Drudge meant. Drudge runs a news aggregation site that sometimes gets a million separate visitors a day, yet he might not qualify as a “real journalist” under this bill; meanwhile, a student who writes for a school newspaper–and just may, indeed, be 17 years old–would qualify for this new protection.