I had the privilege of watching a debate on the Free Flow of Information Act (also referred to as the “media shield federal law”) hosted by Accuracy in Academia on July 22, 2005. The debaters were Marvin Johnson of the American Civil Liberties Union and Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media.
The crux of Johnson’s argument was that a media shield law would increase the transparency of our government at the federal level. He noted that 49 of the 50 states, with the exception of Wyoming, have media shield laws. However, he stated that these are ineffective and that we need a more centralized system. He said that a federal law would importantly loosen up the culture of silence within government and federal agencies. He argued that because government and employees of federal agencies are uncertain about whether or not they will be protected via local media shield laws, the public loses precious information about its government. What prevents people from stepping forward on such occurrences today is their fear of job loss and public scrutiny, he said.
Turning to the theoretical, he said that people who want to step forward and expose injustices in the federal government deserve a safe haven. He also spoke to the ideals of free press. He said that it is critically important to democracy for reporters to be able to dig around for information in private so that they maybe able to communicate to the public much more than what the “dictator” simply says. He said that given this, reporters need to be able to promise confidentiality to their sources.
The media shield would not be absolute because he stated that the sources would be in control of whether their identity would be revealed, Johnson claimed. He said that this law would empower the public rather than reporters who wanted to take advantage of the system and run amok. He touted it as a win-win situation for the public.
He said complications with this law could involve internet “bloggers” and other independent people who act as reporter-types but are not associated with any group of people, in addition to cases in which someone is wrongly accused but needs information from a reporter in order to defend them. He never expounded on what the “functional test” for reporters would be in order to determine who would be protected under this law and who would not be.
Cliff Kincaid, vehemently opposed to a media shield federal law, cited specific cases to deconstruct Johnson’s argument. He explained that such a federal law would protect dishonest people within the government and federal agencies citing the case of Steven Hatfill, whose career was subsequently destroyed after U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft named him as a “person of interest” in the anthrax attacks, based on secret sources. Today it looks as if he was a scapegoat during the search for suspects, wrongly rooted out by his colleagues. Kincaid expressed sympathy for such a situation, and he said that such a law would make it far more difficult for individuals like Hatfill in the future to clear their names. He also added that, in practice, a media shield would further protect such shady characters as Judith Miller, who is refusing to talk, despite her source giving her explicit written permission to do so.
He said this law would result in our country having an alarmist media, in which all sorts of incorrect information would get published, because there would be no accountability on the part of those reporting the news. This would facilitate corrupt individuals in the media or the government agencies in lying to the press. Kincaid made the point that too many anonymous sources aren’t good for democracy either. Given the climate of our national security, Kincaid added, this is an especially dangerous issue.
Miss Inauen worked as an intern at Accuracy in Academia this summer.