By Eric Boehm | Watchdog.org
HARRISBURG — A U.S. senator’s attempt to limit protections for bloggers and other non-traditional media types in a congressionally-crafted shield law has elicited anger and outrage from many of those “new media” journalists.
Independent bloggers decried a proposed amendment by U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., which says only paid journalists should be given protections from prosecution for what they say or write.
“This limited definition of who is a journalism flies in the face of trends in how news is being generated,” said Jon Fleischman, publisher of Flashreport, a website that covers politics in California.
As a blogger who has built a following with credible, well-sourced news reports, Fleischman said the law should treat him the same way it would treat any journalist. If a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle can legally shield their sources in certain circumstances, there is no reason he should not be able to do the same.
“This legislation will have a chilling effect on breaking stories,” Fleischman predicted, as it would limit unpaid journalists’ abilities to get sources inside government.
Of course, that may be exactly what the proposal is meant to do.
There are shield laws on the books in 40 states, but they do not apply in federal court. The First Amendment of the U.S Constitution promises that the right to a free press “shall not be infringed.”
The proposed federal shield law would protect journalists from having to comply with subpoenas or court orders forcing them to reveal sources and other confidential information. The important question, of course, is how to determine that the shield law applies to one person and not another.
But a narrower definition threatens to leave out a growing part of the world of journalism: bloggers, think tank reporters and independent journalists with no direct connection to print or media outlets. While traditional media continues to struggle for survival in many ways, the new age of journalism is thriving online.
“Gone are the days when the masses had to depend on the New York Times to get their information,” said Kristina Ribali, director of new media for FreedomWorks, a grassroots conservative organization that has been instrumental in organizing the tea party movement.
Ribali said FreedomWorks has helped give a platform to local bloggers – turning them into the Thomas Paines of the Internet Age, a reference to the author of a famous pamphlet that helped instigate the American Revolution.
“Today’s bloggers are the pamphleteers of our time. They are holding elected officials accountable at every level of government,” she said.
The amendment offered by Feinstein would extend shield-law protections to those who work as a “salaried employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information,” though students working for news outlets would similarly be covered.
The definition seems to leave out the new tide of bloggers and citizen journalists who thrive on the Internet.
Feinstein is not the only member of Congress seeking to limit the definition of journalists. Last week, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sent letters to a number of organizations – including the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which runs Watchdog.org – seeking information about the legitimacy of nonprofit investigative reporters.
A spokesman for Durbin later told Watchdog.org the senator was not targeting any specific individual or group.
“Should bloggers be covered by a shield law? Yes. But every American who uses any form of new media is a blogger,” said Melissa Clouthier, who runs her own blog and also contributes to RedState.com, a conservative news and opinion website.
“That’s why sticking by the First Amendment is the safest bet. It covers the free speech of all Americans,” she said.
Boehm is a reporter for Watchdog.org and can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at @EricBoehm87