The Senate has reached a deal on a "shield law" to protect journalists from being forced to disclose their sources under court order, reports The New York Times, whose Judith Miller was one of the highest-profile examples of someone who would be protected under such a law. The Times article doesn't remark on the irony of this law being considered by the Senate, given that the Senate itself, and its staff, are some of the biggest leakers to journalists around. Reporters acknowledge this openly: at a Janet Reno press conference when she was attorney general, one reporter put it this way: "it's no secret to anyone at this table that Congress leaks like a sieve. I mean it really is shameless on the Hill." By passing a shield law, the senators and their staffers aren't just protecting the reporters, they are protecting themselves from being exposed as the sources of confidential information. The double standard is particularly glaring at a time when federal prosecutors and the Securities and Exchange Commission are cracking down on those who allegedly leak or misuse confidential corporate information for insider trading. Hedge fund managers are being led around in handcuffs for allegedly receiving confidential information to make money, while Congress is passing a law to protect the ability of reporters to receive confidential information consequence-free to help sell newspapers.
There are other parallels; there are principled cases against insider trading laws and also against government secrecy. But there are distinctions. too. The press already has a special First Amendment protection that most other American industries lack. And the publishers would argue that their leak-based scoops aren't motivated by profit but by public service. Still, the senators are taking a circuitous route by allowing the government to classify information as secret while then leaking the same information to the press and passing a laws protecting the identities of themselves as the leaker. It would be refreshing if more senators took the straightforward approach that Senator Moynihan did and called for a reduction in classification. That would have the same information-exposing effect as a shield law, but without all the self-serving posturing and favoritism.