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Media Shield Law Defining A Journalist Passes Committee

by Carl Wicklander, published


Late last week, the US Senate Judiciary Committee agreed to the wording of an amendment that will likely have consequences for the future of journalism. The amendment comes partly in reaction to leaks from former NSA contractor Edward Snowden to Guardian journalist Glenn Greenwald. The bill is partly designed to make it harder for journalists, particularly bloggers, to conceal sources. Also at play is the media shield law defining a journalist.

As part of the Free Flow of Information Act of 2013, the bill was introduced by New York US Senator Chuck Schumer and cosponsored by sixteen Democrats and four Republicans. In committee, California's Dianne Feinstein said:

"I can't support it if everyone who has a blog has a special privilege . . . or if Edward Snowden were to sit down and write this stuff, he would have a privilege. I'm not going there."

As it appears in the bill, a journalist is defined, partly, as:

". . . an employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity or service that disseminates news or information by means of newspaper; nonfiction book; wire service; news agency; news website; mobile application or other news information service (whether distributed digitally or other wise);

Critics of the bill are quick to point out that the proposed legislation really only protects the corporate media. Omitted from this definition is whether independent bloggers or so-called citizen journalists would have protection to keep sources anonymous.

Clearly exempted from protection would also be organization like WikiLeaks. Operated by Julian Assange, who is now ensconced at the Ecuadorean embassy in London, the definition of a journalist:

"does not include any person or entity whose principal function, as demonstrated by the totality of such person or entity's work, is to publish primary source documents that have been disclosed to such person or entity without authorization."

Texas US Senator Ted Cruz, a Republican, immediately expressed concern about the measure:

"We are on dangerous territory if we are drawing distinctions that are treating some that are engaged in the process of reporting and journalism better than others."

Alabama US Senator Jeff Sessions, another Republican, expressed his concern that the bill might not target the appropriate party:

"And the leaker, basically, is the one being protected. This legislation would encourage more leakers. It gives some sort of advantage to them in significant ways. It makes it harder to stop and prosecute those cases."

One critic is web news entrepreneur Matt Drudge.

Previously an obscure blogger in the infancy of the internet age, Drudge and his website, the Drudge Report, broke the story in 1998 about President Bill Clinton's extramarital affair with an intern. Regardless of the effect the impeachment proceedings had on the American body politic, it has revolutionized the way millions of Americans receive their news.

Through his Twitter account, Drudge announced his opposition to the amendment, highlighting the quandaries that may ensue:

"Federal judge once ruled Drudge 'is not a reporter, a journalist, or newsgatherer."

In an age of NSA metadata gathering and investigation of journalists, issues of privacy and source protection are as relevant as ever. However, it also speaks to how small, independent news agencies and websites operate in a changing landscape of journalism.

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