Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Boucher's New Shield Law and Why Bloggers Still Won't Be Considered Journalists...

As Jacqui Cheng has reported, Congressman Rick Boucher (D-VA) has introduced a bill to provide federal "shield" protections for journalists and would provide a broader definition for journalism, which Boucher says is meant to include bloggers. While well intended (and badly needed), the bill will ultimately be a failure.

As Cheng describes, "Under the wording of the bill, journalists are protected from divulging their sources for news stories except in cases where there is imminent harm to national security, imminent death or significant bodily harm involved, a trade secret "of significant value in violation of State or Federal law," individually identifiable health information, and in instances where "nondisclosure of the information would be contrary to the public interest.""

Furthermore, "instead of requiring journalists to be tied to a news organization, the bill now defines "journalism" to focus more on the function of the job: "the gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public."

Even the typical 18 year-old pre-law student would immediately recognize how open this is to interpretation. What exactly constitutes being "contrary to the public interest"? Is there really any internet activity that doesn't involve "gathering" or "writing" about "information" that "concerns" "events"? These types of questions would ultimately weaken the bill, rendering it largely just symbolic policy, and at worst, meaningless.

Also, it must be mentioned that the current political climate in Washington will make it extremely difficult to pass the shield protections even for professional journalists of the traditional media companies, never mind amateur bloggers. In the wake of the Judy Miller/CIA leak case, the New York Times report on American military plans in Iraq, and the Bush Administration's hostility towards whistle-blowers, it is nearly impossible to imagine what "broad bipartisan support" Boucher is referring to.

A more skeptical eye might perceive that Boucher threw in the blogger provisions as a political tactic - something that could be used as a bargaining chip and offered as a concession during congressional negotiations.

The bottom line remains that some, though certainly not all, bloggers should be afforded the same journalistic protections of free speech in order to report and editorialize on what's happening in the world, without fear of subpoena. Boucher seems to have the right intentions, and indeed it's definitely an encouraging direction for lawmakers to be moving in, but unfortunately the fact remains that this bill doesn't stand a chance of passing in its present form.

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