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 V.17 No.32 | August 7 - 13, 2008 

Thin Line

Frozen Mid-Step

Is it really a free press when there are no guarantees for journalists protecting sources? Is it really free speech when there's no promise of safety for speaking out?

It's high time sources knew their identities would be protected under the law when exposing the bad behavior of entities powerful enough to harm them.

Chicken Republicans froze what's being called the " shield law" in the Senate last week, ending the bill's progress until September. It became a casualty of the frantic oil-crisis mosh pit on Capitol Hill. Forty-three senators, most of whom hail from the Grand Old Party, said they wouldn't vote to bring the measure to the floor until an energy bill allowing more oil and gas production in the United States was voted on.

It's true the shield law—the Senate version of the Free Flow of Information Act—isn't sexy. It doesn’t have the same ring that "so-and-so voted to give taxpayers a break at the pump" does on the campaign trail.

Politicians seem to operate on the assumption that taxpayers care only about immediate problems: how much a gallon of milk costs, how high their gas bills are and whether they're going to lose work in these troubling times.

Though a shield law may not seem that important, it's the kind of thing that makes it possible for even the guy without two pennies to rub together to make his voice heard over the thumping disco of consumerism. That guy can call a journalist and say, "Everyone in my town is getting sick because the nearby factory is dumping waste into the water supply."

A shield law is one of those things that's not urgent ... until you need it. And then you need it badly. SB 2035 isn't the belle of the ball, but she'd help you out in a pinch.

The bill shouldn't have been made a political gum-wrapper on the dance floor, kicked to the side as Congress shimmied to the oil and gas-industry's beat. A shield law protects everyone, regardless of party affiliation, affording journalists the same privileges as doctors, lawyers, therapists and clergy.

“We are very disappointed that the bill stalled today,” said Clint Brewer, president of the Society of Professional Journalists in a news release. “SPJ will continue to encourage its members and public citizens to contact members of Congress and express part of the Society’s mission: to encourage a climate where journalism can be practiced freely. A federal shield law would be a major step.”

A major step and a full-out moonwalk to the first rest stop, if you ask me. Throw in some better regulations about how many outlets a media conglomerate can own, top it off with better enforcement of the Freedom of Information Act, and you're probably most of the way there.


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