Feinstein Wants To Limit Who Can Be A Journalist

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Above: I’VE HAD IT UP TO HERE: U.S. Sen. Diane Feinstein, D-Calif., says citizen journalists and bloggers should not be covered by a federal shield law.

The most recent congressional threat to the free press in the United States comes from California Democrat U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein.

In a proposed amendment to a media shield law being considered by Congress, Feinstein writes that only paid journalists should be given protections from prosecution for what they say or write.  The language in her proposal is raising concerns from First Amendment advocates because it seems to leave out bloggers and other nontraditional forms of journalism that have proliferated in recent years thanks to the Internet.

“It rubs me the wrong way that the government thinks it should be in the business of determining who should be considered a journalist,” said Ken Bunting, executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition at the Missouri School of Journalism.

But on the other hand, Bunting said, there is a great need for federal shield law in light of recent attempts by the U.S. Justice Department to force journalists to give up information about confidential sources.

The difficulty with writing any such law — this is the third time Congress has attempted to craft a federal shield law — is that any such law would have to set standards for who counts as a journalist or what qualifies as an “act of journalism.”

There are shield laws on the books in 40 states, but they do not apply in federal court.  The First Amendment of the U.S Constitution promises that the right to a free press “shall not be infringed.”

The proposed federal shield law would protect journalists from having to comply with subpoenas or court orders forcing them to reveal sources and other confidential information.  The important question, of course, is how to determine that the shield law applies to one person and not another.

In other words, how do you determine someone is a journalist?

Feinstein, chairwoman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee (and a staunch defender of the government’s right to spy on anyone at any time), does not want to see a shield law that would protect employees of WikiLeaks and other leak-driven news organizations.

At a congressional hearing on the matter last week, Feinstein said shield laws should only apply to “real reporters.”

An amendment offered by Feinstein would extend shield-law protections to those who work as a “salaried employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information,” though students working for news outlets would similarly be covered.  The definition seems to leave out the new tide of bloggers and citizen journalists who thrive on the Internet.

Calls and emails to Feinstein’s office were not returned on Monday.

In states with shield laws, the difference between being protected by them or not can be great.

Take the case of Crystal Cox, for example.  A self-described “investigative blogger” from Seattle, Cox broke a story about financial malpractice at a major investment bank, prompting a lawsuit for defamation.

Cox argued in court that she should be covered by Oregon’s shield laws, but a judge found she was not protected because she was not part of the traditional media.

As a result, she was ordered to pay $2.5 million to the investment firm.

The laws in many states are lagging behind the reality of journalism today, where anyone with a camera, smart phone or a computer can break an important story.

“The distinction between who gets paid to do journalism and who doesn’t is going to be come essentially meaningless as we go forward with this technological revolution,” said Kelly McBride, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute, a journalism school based in St. Petersburg, Fla.

McBride, the recent author of a book on journalism ethics in the Internet age, said shield laws are meant to ensure a vibrant marketplace of ideas where all voices can be heard.

“To the extent that you limit the shield law, you limit who is in that marketplace,” she said.

Feinstein is not the only member of Congress seeking to limit the definition of journalists.  Last week, U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., sent letters to a number of organizations – including the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which runs Watchdog.org – seeking information about the legitimacy of nonprofit investigative reporters.

A spokesman for Durbin later told Watchdog.org the senator was not targeting any specific individual or group.

Boehm is a reporter for Watchdog.org and can be reached atEric@PAIndependent.com.  Follow him on Twitter @EricBoehm87

  • http://LeftVoices.net Andrea Sears

    I have been a journalist for the past 25 years. For most of that time I was employed by the Pacifica Foundation as a reporter and anchor for the WBAI Evening News in NYC. Two weeks ago, due to budget shortfalls, I was laid off, along with most of the rest of the paid staff at WBAI. My specialties in recent years have been Constitutional law, civil rights and civil liberties, including Senator Feinstein’s beloved NSA and it’s romp through American’s phone calls, email, web browser data and metadata. I have continued to file news stories daily on my own website, LeftVoices.net, but I don’t get paid to do so. Under Senator Feinstein’s amendment I probably would not be covered by the federal shield law. So I would be subject to subpoenas or prosecution for a story I reported this week, that would have been protected last month. I wonder how much Thomas Paine was paid for writing “Common Sense”, and how high Feinstein would hang him for the crime of writing without a paycheck.

    • youaretheblues

      Don’t stop writing!

  • Stephen Binette

    The original American “press” was not McClatchey, Tribune, USNews, or oither conglomerates. Originally gossip papers, it slowly became more sophisticated, but still local, small and private.
    Feinstein’s approach is to corporatize news – any large ($$$) publishing system which reports “news” is OK; indpendent presses are to be mistrusted, and any singularly critical reporting is to be dealt with severely. Of course, web and blogging would be grouped with wikileaks.

    Welcome to the Brave New World.

  • https://www.facebook.com/geniemaples Genie Maples

    Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin were the bloggers of their day. THE PRESS is us, the citizens with pencils and paper and screens and video cameras and the internet. The press IS the people, the people who write and distribute their speech rather than or in addition to orating.

    Citizen journalism is not a new idea that needs new restrictions. It is the original meaning of “the press,” the very thing the first amendment was designed to protect – the voices of citizens, not the voice of the corporation, not the megaconglomerate monstrosity Feinstein seems to think.

    She has taken her eye off the ball.

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  • http://www.drugtruth.net Dean Becker

    Andrea, I too work for Pacifica at KPFT, Houston. We have never been paid here. October will mark 12 years of reporting on my only beat, the drug war. I have traveled and spent tens of thousands of dollars to obtain interviews, attend seminars, etc. I now produce a weekly 1 hour TV show about the drug war as well.

    Again, if getting paid is the only criteria for being a journalist the 4th estate is no more.

    Terror is as terror does.

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  • http://electken.com Ken Hildebrandt

    Wow, I’ve been an independent web journalist since 2000. This is terrible. When will enough have enough?

  • Karen

    How about if we ask Mrs. Feinstein-Blum to accept, in return, Congressional exception to ministerial immunity. That way, she can impair our right to hear the words of un-bought journalists and we can prosecute HER?

    Think she’ll back REAL accountability?

    No, I don’t, either.

  • http://www.kylemichelsullivan.com Kyle Michel Sullivan

    First she defends the NSA spying on us, then she pulls this? She used to be a Democrat but never was what I’d call a liberal one. Now she’s nothing but a GOP Hack. GO AWAY, Diane! You’re a travesty.

  • Ernest

    What if we had a government that when truthful stories are told about it and what it does in secret, would put the government in a good light and not a bad light? What if the truth being told was that those in government were doing the best they could for the people of the country instead of for a select few? What if when members of the executive branch lied to another branch of government they would lose their position because the executive branch had credibility and valued that credibility? What if we the people remember and value our right to grant power and remove power from our government as required to improve our country and the world? What if when a members of congress suggest it would be helpful to remove a necessary right from we the people that they somehow are helped to see that this would not be in the best interest of we the people and more respect and the bolstering of free speech would be? (btw: To me, the phrase “we the people” clearly does not include corporations. Am I remembering that founding document correctly or should I go study it some more? And maybe we need to study it some more regardless of whether or not we remember it correctly)

  • Dlt

    Arroggance in the making – me thinks she does protest too much!

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  • http://vegasguy72.wordpress.com dave72

    What’s the difference between a journalist and absolutely anyone with access to a computer to create their own blog? Apparently, to most of you, nothing. Some blowhard with an opinion and a loose definition of “facts” is just as much a journalist as someone who works for a newsgathering organization or investigating reporting entity who knows the difference between libel and slander and how the law applies to each? I’m not sure about requiring a recognized journalist be a paid member of the press but I do know just letting anyone throw accusations around without consideration of credibility and using adequate news judgment is similar to allowing untrained individuals free reign to adopt any skilled profession, i e doctors, attorneys, public safety technicians. Go ahead and equate Matt Drudge with Seymour Hersh but watch out what you wish for, you might get it.

    • Roger

      Excellent, Dave72.

  • Roger

    The headline is wrong, way wrong. The entire article goes way beyond reality. Were you to actually read the supporting material you would plainly see that there is no intent to impugn a writer’s right to write. Her words are meant only to dissuade those who would betray their employer and call it ‘journalism’ or ‘free speech’ or some such. If you want to expose your employer whether governmental or private, quit first, then run off at the mouth. When you steal from your employer it’s a crime. Steal from Microsoft you go to jail. Steal from your country, if it is your employer, you go to jail. Simple enough. Want to expose your employer? Quit first, don’t steal. Then you can spend the rest of your life doing whatever, saying whatever, to whomever you wish. Pretty simple. If you do otherwise you are a fool.

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