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Federal Media Protection Law Stalls in Senate

Alex Constantine - July 31, 2008

GOP blocks effort to have a vote - bill likely done for year
Jennifer A. Dlouhy, Hearst Newspapers

(07-31) 04:00 PDT Washington - --

The prospect of congressional approval of a federal "media shield" law this year dimmed Wednesday when Senate Republicans blocked legislation that would protect journalists from being forced to reveal confidential sources.

Supporters of the shield bill said it is possible - but unlikely - that the issue will be revived in September, after the Senate takes a planned monthlong recess starting this weekend. Otherwise, backers of the bill would be forced to begin again in January, when a new Congress convenes.

The shield bill was derailed in the Senate when Republican senators seeking a floor vote on a broad energy bill blocked efforts by Senate Democratic leaders to debate other measures, including the media shield proposal.

The Senate fell eight votes shy of the 60 necessary to limit debate - and thus thwart a Republican-led filibuster - on the media shield bill. Five Republicans, including bill sponsors Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and Dick Lugar, R-Ind., broke party ranks and voted to begin debating the shield legislation.
"I would say the odds are Republicans killed media shield today," said Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., who has used his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee to advance the legislation.

Leahy pledged to "keep bringing it back as much as we can," but he acknowledged that the Senate's calendar in September could be very crowded with "all the other important things we have to do."

Specter said he will keep pressing for the media shield bill, but he predicted that the measure "won't be acted on by the balance of the Congress."

Despite opposition from the Bush administration, the media shield bill is relatively popular on Capitol Hill. The House overwhelmingly passed its version of the legislation by a vote of 398-21.

The similar Senate measure would shield reporters from being compelled to disclose their sources, except in limited cases, such as when the evidence would help prevent an act of terrorism or when there is "significant and articulable harm to the national security."

Major news media companies, media associations and 42 state attorneys generally back the legislation, calling it a vital protection for reporters who are increasingly being asked to open their notebooks and cameras for federal prosecutors.

Two Chronicle reporters narrowly averted jail time last year, after an attorney said he had been the source of leaked grand jury transcripts cited in a newspaper series on steroid use by Giants slugger Barry Bonds and other athletes.

The top Democrat in the Senate, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, invoked the plight of the Chronicle reporters during a floor speech Wednesday and said their case is strong evidence of a pressing need for a federal media shield.

Although 49 states and the District of Columbia have laws protecting the relationship between journalists and their sources, Reid said it is "long past time for the federal government to follow suit" and reduce uncertainty about media rights.

"That uncertainty puts a tremendous burden on the media and reduces the likelihood that whistle-blowers will come forward with information," Reid said.

Specter said that a rash of subpoenas seeking information about journalists' sources have had a chilling effect on reporters.

"Reporters have been intimidated," Specter said.

Leahy said the legislation is crucial to ensuring that journalists have the protection they need to investigate alleged wrongdoing without fear that they risk jail time by protecting anonymous sources.

The measure generally agrees with Justice Department guidelines governing when media representatives can be subpoenaed for confidential source information. The bill would put federal judges - not Justice Department officials - in charge of determining on a case-by-case basis whether it was in the public interest to compel journalists to reveal their confidential sources.


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