I haven’t followed the Plame case, so I am no expert on the details of the issue about a New York Times reporter going to jail rather than reveal a source. But I am wary of the instinctive stand of my colleagues in the press to side with the reporter and to demand a shield law.
The rationale for my wariness is best expressed by Pat Buchanan. First, when the journalist says his relationship with his source requires the same protected status as the relationship between lawyer and client, he ignores that the lawyer-client relationship is protected for the sake of the client. There is not the same urgency to protect anonymous leakers.
I hear “off the record” statements all the time. I have never been ordered by an official to reveal a source. If I were, I would most likely do what the Seattle Times told me to do, because I work here. I am also aware, as my colleagues remind me, that the subpoena power may be abused, and that I might be ordered to disclose a source for a not-very-good reason. Such is life. That does not, in itself, justify a shield law.
Secondly, Buchanan writes, “Freedom of the press is a right that belongs to all of us, from [New York] Times reporters to bloggers to kids writing about pot parties for the high school paper. Why then should only working reporters be exempt from the law that requires all of us, from presidents to paupers, to testify, when called before a grand jury?”
Unlike law or medicine, journalism is an unlicensed trade, protected from regulation by the First Amendment. Its practitioners approach others and ask questions—something anyone may do. They write or speak, which anyone may do, and they hire themselves out to employers, which anyone may do. Their association with publishers gives them a very practical advantage over the average person, but they have no legal advantage. They should be very wary about asking for laws that single them out as a special class, because once one has privileges as a special class, one may be loaded down with costs and penalties as a special class.
Read the whole Buchanan column here.
Respond to Bruce.