By Courtney Mabeus
The newspaper and media industry's lobbying over the proposed federal sheild law
As reporter Judith Miller sits in an Alexandria, Va. jail for refusing to testify in a federal criminal case about who may have revealed the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame, a coalition of media organizations is pushing Congress to pass a federal shield law to protect reporters from being forced to identify confidential sources.
Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia have enacted shield laws that offer journalists some level of protection against coercive legal measures designed to reveal secret sources. In the wake of the Plame case, Congress is considering bipartisan legislation introduced by Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) and Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) that would enact a federal shield law.
Nearly 80 news organizations, including some of the nation’s top newspapers and television networks, have lined up in support of the bill. They include The New York Times, whose parent company owns more than a dozen newspapers across the country; The Washington Post, whose parent owns Newsweek magazine and other print and broadcast outlets; The Wall Street Journal, owned by Dow Jones; ABC, owned by Disney; and CBS, whose parent company is Viacom.
Individually, these companies pack a powerful lobbying punch. The Washington Post Co. reported spending $1.1 million in federal lobbying spending between 1997 and 2004, and Dow Jones & Co. spent $985,000 between 1997 and 2001, the last date federal lobbying records were available for the company. The corporate owners of the major networks spend much more.
But despite their considerable power and financial resources, media companies appear to be taking a mostly tepid approach to the shield law legislation. They have let the Newspaper Association of America, which represents the business and publishing side of the newspaper industry, take the informal lead in coordinating the effort on the shield law issue.
In some respects, the NAA could be considered ideally suited for the job. The group boasts an impressive membership of approximately 1,200 publications and another 300 corporate newspaper owners. In an industry often accused of displaying a liberal bias, the NAA’s modest campaign giving favors Republicans over Democrats. NAA employees have contributed $32,300 since 1999 to federal candidates and party committees, $22,750 of which has gone to Republicans. The group is very active in federal lobbying, having spent a reported $12 million between 1997 and 2004.
However, the coalition is spending only a "nominal" amount on lobbying for a federal shield law, said Paul Boyle, the NAA’s senior vice president for public policy.
"It’s not a real resource-intensive operation," Boyle said. He added that the NAA hired Covington and Burling, which has a large D.C. lobbying practice, to advise the coalition.
Asked if media organizations are in an awkward position lobbying the lawmakers they cover on the issue of journalistic freedom, Boyle said no.
"I think it’s appropriate for news organizations to collectively educate members on the impact of the [federal shield] legislation," Boyle said.
Others in the media industry acknowledged that journalists have found themselves in an unusual role in the shield law debate.
"We're journalists. A lot of us kind of detest the idea that we have to lobby at all. But, we have done it and we will do it," said Irwin Gratz, president of the Society of Professional Journalists.
SPJ is one of a handful of media trade groups that are not often politically active, but have been mobilizing public support for a federal shield law. SPJ has started a campaign to raise $30,000 to for efforts in support of the federal shield law legislation, according to the group’s Web site.
Scott Bosley, executive director of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, said his group has taken the rare step of advocating for a federal shield law.
"This is the first time that the board of ASNE has taken a stand on a piece of legislation," Bosley said. "Being a public strong force in lobbying has never been something we wanted to do. Every newspaper has its own editorial page."
The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which provides legal assistance to reporters, has been participating in weekly strategy sessions with others lobbying in support of the legislation, said Executive Director Lucy Daglish.
The group does not lobby, but it is encouraging others in the media industry to do so.
"Somebody has to be in [negotiations over the bill] with an actual journalist’s perspective," Daglish said.
Shield law supporters also have the backing of a powerful labor union: the Communications Workers of America. CWA includes the Newspaper Guild, which represents 34,000 workers in the newspaper industry.
CWA spokeswoman Candace Johnson said the Guild helped to organize 15 to 20 rallies outside federal courthouses and buildings in support of a federal shield law the day Miller was sent to jail. CWA members participated in the rallies, Johnson said.
CWA, which represents thousands of employees from the media and telecommunications industries, is one of the top donors in politics. The union, its PAC and employees have contributed more than $23 million to federal candidates and party committees since 1989, nearly all of it to Democrats. The union has reported spending an additional $2.8 million on lobbying since 1997.
The debate over a federal shield law comes at a time when news organizations appear to be facing an increasing number of subpoenas to compel the identification of confidential sources. Grant Penrod at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press says anecdotal evidence shows an increase in subpoenas of journalists. Dodd and Lugar wrote in a March op-ed in USA Today that 22 reporters were issued federal subpoenas last year, up from about nine per year issued between 1991 and 2002.
Supporters of a federal shield law say it would help serve the public interest in a free press. Forcing journalists to reveal confidential sources "could have a chilling effect on the free flow of information," Dodd and Lugar wrote in their USA Today piece.
The Bush administration opposed early versions of the bill. In testimony submitted for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing July 20, Deputy Attorney General James Comey said the legislation was "bad public policy."
The bill would "bar the government from obtaining information about media sources even in the most urgent of circumstances affecting the public's health or safety or national security," read Comey’s testimony. Comey did not attend the hearing itself, drawing the ire of some lawmakers.
The bill’s backers have added language that would require disclosure of a secret source if necessary to protect national security, but it is unclear if the amendment will change the administration’s position.