Save The Reporters!

Compared to the scenes in recent months in Kiev or Bishkek (or even Pinellas Park, Florida), the American public's response to the prospects of journalists going to jail has been, well, muted.

While countless media columns have chronicled the saga of New York Times reporter Judith "WMD" Miller and Time magazine's Matt Cooper, people have not exactly been storming into the streets in protest. Unlike in Schiavo country, no 10-year-olds have been arrested trying to embarrass federal judges into keeping Cooper and Miller out of jail for their crime of refusing to squeal on a confidential source. Perhaps this lackluster public reaction reflects the sentiments found in a recent poll of U.S high schoolers, almost half of whom support government approval of news stories.

Luckily, a couple folks on Capitol Hill have taken notice of the Miller-Cooper case and proposed laws creating a federal shield for reporters. California and several other states already have such laws, which protect reporters from being compelled by a court to reveal certain information. The idea is that the public is better served when sources know they can talk to reporters without worrying that they will be outed by an overzealous prosecutor.

In the House, Republican Mike Pence of Indiana and Democrat Rick Boucher of Virginia have introduced a single bill. It's been assigned to committee, but no hearing has been scheduled yet. Supporters hope to get one in the fall. On the Senate side, Connecticut Democrat Chris Dodd and Indiana Republican Dick Lugar have proposed separate bills. But there's been little movement there, either.

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Lucy Dalglish, executive director of the Reporters' Committee for Freedom of the Press, is confident that there will eventually be action "because the media is very galvanized for the first time in 15 or 20 years -- maybe 30 years." The reason: the sea of subpoenas targeting reporters, from the Plame case to those of nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee, anthrax "person of interest" Stephen Hatfill, and the Balco steroids charges.

"This has really gotten to be a serious issue," Dalglish says. "You cannot continue to operate a news operation if your reporters are going to be subject to going to jail just for doing their job." While the proposed laws do allow for courts to compel reporters' testimony under some conditions, Dalglish says their main selling point is that the absolutely protect the right to keep confidential sources secret.

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