New details are emerging on a daily basis about President Obama’s vast domestic spying network. Agents spy on journalists. Government computers track our phone calls. Drones watch us from the sky.
In response to these revelations, our corporately owned “watchdogs of democracy” are barking in protest. Mainstream journalists demand special protections against government intrusion. Big Media is colluding with U.S. Senators to craft legislation that protects less than 1% of the populace and further ensures Obama’s ability to “plug” citizen leaks.
Within the editorial pages of mainstream newspapers, columnists are voicing their opposition. The same day The Guardian in London revealed that the NSA was scooping up the phone records of millions of Americans, The San Gabriel Valley Tribune ran an editorial calling the spying “an outrageous assault on our civil liberties.” After the Associated Press announced that the Department of Justice seized reporters’ phone records, the Milwaukee Wisconsin Journal Sentinel wrote, “Government can't be trusted to always tell the truth or to always do what's right.”
Also within these columns, writers are proposing a well-worn solution: passage of a federal media shield law that protects “professional” journalists. The St. Cloud Times in Central Minnesota wrote that a shield law “would give greater protections to journalists asked to reveal confidential sources or hand over unpublished information to federal authorities.” California’s Modesto Bee described a law that “would require law enforcement to try every other avenue to obtain (confidential information from reporters) before seeking judicial approval to seize records from journalists. Reporters could appeal to federal judges, who would have to balance the government's need for information against the public interest in newsgathering.”
What these columns are advocating for is The Free Flow of Information Act of 2013 Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) introduced the legislation in May after learning that the Department of Justice covertly obtained AP reporters’ emails and phone records. The law is modeled after Senators Diane Feinstein (D-CA) and Dick Durbin’s (D-IL) 2009 proposal, and would shield journalists from revealing their confidential sources in most circumstances. But both the Feinstein-Durbin law and Schumer’s current bill suffer the same two flaws because they fail to address: Who is a journalist? And what is legitimate news?
Granted, coming up with a universal definition of “journalist” is no easy task. Scholars, practitioners and politicians haven't yet agreed on a contemporary definition of the word. Before the widespread use of the Internet, a journalist was typically recognized as an individual who compiled information to be presented as news through a medium (newspaper, television or radio). But in the era of citizen journalism, everyone fits the definition. With an Internet connection and small digital device, anyone can compile information and publish it through a medium.
One question that comes to mind: Would Schumer’s law protect someone like Wikileaks founder Julian Assange? Assange published leaked information from Army Private Bradley Manning that revealed American war crimes abroad. Manning is currently being tried and faces life in prison for leaking the information to Assange.
But a press release from Schumer’s office states explicitly: “WikiLeaks doesn’t quality for protection … [because] the site does not fit the bill’s definition of a journalist, which requires that the covered party regularly engage in legitimate newsgathering activities.” According to the press release, senators are also working with media conglomerates to craft “new language that will explicitly exclude organizations like WikiLeaks, whose sole or primary purpose is to publish unauthorized disclosures of documents…”
This law should invoke fear. It only protects Big Media. Citizen journalists are still exposed to government persecution and prosecution. The bill, in the end, empowers the government to define who is a journalist and to silence “illegitimate newsgathering.”
America should not waste time debating laws that benefit the 1%. Big Media have not been the “watchdogs” they sell themselves as.They were silent as George W. Bush dragged us into two wars with fictitious intelligence. They largely ignored and continue to ignore climate change. Mainstream reporters were complacent as Obama hunted down Assange for publishing proof that the U.S. violated international law.
The debate around shield laws quickly falls into a rabbit hole over “who” is covered. So instead of focusing on the individual, let’s focus on the action. I propose a national Protecting Democracy Through Information Act. The idea is simple: whoever exposes government lies and crimes is protected from prosecution.
I can already hear the naysayers. Sure, the idea may not be perfect. But some of this country’s landmark legislation started with simple, grand ideals (women must have the right to vote, discrimination is intolerable, all citizens should access the polls). Let’s do the same in the current spying debate and agree: Obama’s spying was only revealed through leaks from everyday citizens who possessed earth-shattering proof. Without those leaks, we would remain blind to the covert tactics that are imperiling the U.S. Constitution and our privacy.
It isn't the 1% that requires more protection. It's journalists and the rest of us: the 99%. This country needs laws encouraging the free flow of information to foster a healthy democracy.