Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), backed by Senator Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), has proposed an amendment to a journalist shield law sponsored by Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee earlier in the month. She wants to choose who can and who cannot be considered a journalist.
Schumer’s shield law bill’s purpose is aimed at protecting journalists’ sources. A renewed push for stronger media shield laws came after disclosures earlier this year that the Justice Department secretly subpoenaed two months’ of telephone records for phone lines used by reporters and editors for The Associated Press and secretly used a warrant to obtain the emails of a FOX News journalist.
“We need a strong media shield bill now more than ever,” Schumer said. “This is an important step forward that strengthens this bipartisan bill and should give it even more momentum to clear the committee and the Senate by the end of the year.”
The New York Democrat’s effort came complete with a four-page explanation of who would be protected under the law, summarily, a person “with the primary intent to investigate events and procure material in order to disseminate to the public news or information concerning local, national or international events or other matters of public interest.”
Though Schumer has declared that organizations like the government leak clearinghouse Wikileaks would not be protected by the language in his bill, the proposal would protect independent bloggers and citizen journalists.
But Feinstein wants to place further limitations on the definition of journalist because she is concerned “that the current version of the bill would grant a special privilege to people who aren’t really reporters at all, who have no professional qualifications.” The Senator has proposed that only people who are salaried or at least affiliated with a news “entity” should receive media shield protections.
Specifically, the Feinstein amendment requires a journalist to meet one of the following definitions:
- Work as a “salaried employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information;”
- Either (a) meeting the prior definition “for any continuous three-month period within the two years prior to the relevant date” or (b) having “substantially contributed, as an author, editor, photographer, or producer, to a significant number of articles, stories, programs, or publications by an entity . . . within two years prior to the relevant date;” or
- Work as a student journalist “participating in a journalistic publication at an institution of higher education.”
Her amendment also reaffirms problematic language in the original version of the bill, which gives Federal investigators broad room for abuse, requiring people seeking protection under the media shield to regularly participate in journalistic activities. Specifically, the amendment requires:
- That individuals “engage[d] in . . . the regular gathering, preparation, collection, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting or publishing on” matters of public interest; or
- That individuals “regularly conducted interviews, reviewed documents, captured images of events, or directly observed events.”
The Electronic Frontier Foundation contends that Feinstein’s crusade to define “who” is a journalist with vague language about paychecks is bad news for independent bloggers, journalists and anyone on the media fringe.
The organization said in a statement:
Sen. Feinstein’s amendment is riddled with vague language, failing to define key terms including “agent,” entity,” “substantially contributed,” and “regularly”—on which the definition of who’s a journalist turns. Non-traditional journalists are at a disadvantage when the interpretative waters are muddy. Why? Because such vagueness invites interpretations that exclude those who are on the margins of status quo journalism, and who are often in a more vulnerable position and unable to hire legal counsel to sort through the law’s ambiguities. As a result, independent bloggers and citizen journalists would likely be interpreted out of Feinstein’s definition of journalist.
Of course, Feinstein is probably well aware that her amendment endangers citizen journalists and thousands of bloggers keeping a keen eye on the criminal class in Washington. That’s the point.