To the Point for 3/23/2006


Last week I had the opportunity to attend the National Newspaper Association’s annual Government Affairs Conference in Washington, D.C., and although I was there for just three days, I was amazed at the diversity of issues that are being discussed.

I was there to serve as the official escort to the conference for U.S. Representative Mike Pence, Republican from Indiana’s 2nd District. Max Heath of Landmark Newspapers in Kentucky had asked me to come to Washington and meet with the congressman because of our close ties. For two years, Mike and I were fraternity brothers at Hanover College, so we know each other very well.

In the newspaper industry, we know Mike Pence because he is the author and sponsor of the legislation that will create a shield law for reporters at the national level. Currently, 49 states have laws protecting journalists and their ability to provide confidentiality to their sources — but there is no such federal law.

For hundreds of years, a shield law did not exist at the federal level because federal judges believed that such a shield had been provided by our forefathers in drafting the Constitution; and that our first amendment right of “freedom of the press” came with certain assurances that the press could operate freely and independently — the “fourth estate”.

Over the years, however, that assumption has been eroded by federal judges who believed that justice held a higher standing than word and honor and confidentiality.

Over time, the first amendment assumption was pared down to the point that Judith Miller of The New York Times spent time in a federal prison without doing anything wrong. It was the Judith Miller case that led Mike Pence to author legislation to create protections for journalists at the federal level. Fellow Hoosier Senator Richard Lugar is cosponsoring the legislation.

In his remarks to the NNA, Congressman Pence said something rather surprising, but also thought provoking. He said that his bill had little to do with protecting journalists, but everything to do with protecting the public’s right to know. The congressman said that he believes that there is information that is so important for the public to be aware of, that the only way it can be obtained and brought to light is through the ability of the media to guarantee sources ultimate confidentiality.

He’s right, and in an atmosphere were the public believes that journalists have too much power, newspapers need to make sure that our readers are educated to the fact that this is about their freedoms — not ours. Citizens need to know that they have all of the information that they need to make informed choices, and that the only way that they can get that information is through the media doing their job.

It’s an easy proposition to make to people understand: we have all had friends for neighbors call us over and whisper in our ear, “…Now you never heard this from me, but…” It’s the same thing for journalists. There is certain information that we can never obtain without guaranteeing the person who gives us that information that they will remain anonymous. Just like your neighbor whispering across the backyard fence, information that they feel is important needs to be shared, but higher standards dictate that the information remain confidential.

Mike Pence is a Conservative Republican, but in this issue of the public’s right to know, politics shouldn’t matter. You may not agree with his positions on many matters, but I believe that it is vital that average citizens support the Federal Shield Bill and understand just how important this law is to their freedoms — not just ours. Please help support this important piece of legislation. It is creating quite a “buzz” on Capitol Hill, and I believe that Congress will pass it during this session.

No matter what political party you belong to, we all should unite in the knowledge that when government closes its doors and is allowed to do things out of the public’s view, your rights as a citizen are impacted, and you shouldn’t let that happen.

This is “Govern in Sunshine” week, a week that is designed to promote units of government doing their business in public view, and not behind closed doors. Ultimately, you as citizens are the ones with the strong voice to make sure that your right to know isn’t compromised, and I believe that the Federal Shield Law will help keep things out in public view — and that’s good for you.