Today we catch up, belatedly, on another unusual 'no' vote from 1st District Rep. Bill Sali.
Sali was among just 21 House members to vote no on
style="text-decoration:underline;">HR 2102, a federal "shield law" governing journalists' ability to protect the anonymity of unnamed sources. The bill passed the House on Oct. 16; to his credit, 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson voted yes.
I can hear the Sali defenders now. "Oh, now Sali's done it: he has voted against a media bill, ticking off all those reporters and pundits who have never liked him in the first place."
First off, I'll defend a Sali no vote when he has a good explanation for it (as I did recently, when I said I could understand his no vote on the SCHIP expansion bill and the cigarette tax increase that went with it). And second, and an effective shield law isn't just a media bill. In protecting journalists' ability to report on sensitive stories, a good shield law honors the public's right to know.
Here's how Sali spokesman Wayne Hoffman explains this no vote: "The Congressman was concerned that the bill would encourage the leaking of classified material. At the same time, there’s a concern that the bill would set so high a bar as to discourage investigations and prosecutions of such leaks."
I can appreciate Sali's concerns, but I don't just don't agree with his interpretation of HR 2012. This is no get-out-of-jail (or stay-out-of-jail) card for journalists. Reporters could be forced to reveal their sources for reasons of national security; if disclosure is "necessary to prevent imminent death or significant bodily harm;" and if disclosure is in the public interest, "taking into account both the public interest in compelling disclosure and the public interest in gathering news and maintaining the free flow of information."
This is a balancing act, as HR 2102 seems to recognize.
In an editorial last week, the San Jose Mercury News pointed out that 33 states already have shield laws, and argued effectively for a federal shield law. The paper pointed out that in some cases, such as the investigation into the Balco steriods story and the Wen Ho Lee spy case, unnamed sources are essential to the news-gathering process.
"Most journalists use confidential sources sparingly and as a last resort. And information they provide is usually supported by follow-up documentation or further interviews. In many instances, providing a source confidentiality is essential to the important watchdog role the press provides in our democracy," the Mercury News wrote.
Amen. That role is important even during — and especially during — a nebulous and ongoing war on terror.