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Spin Doctoring The News Into Freedom of Speech

The Fourth Estate has become _______ (you fill in the blank as you see fit).

No matter how you look at it, though, journalists have faced some tough choices, with the threat of jail and sometimes actual time in the gray bar hotel.

First Amendment rights have been at risk across the pond and in the cradle of civilization.

And no matter how oblique the reference, the risk to a journalist is real, even if there is no legal basis to protect the "reporter-source" privilege. Certainly, there is a patchwork of statutes and case law designed to protect journalists who refuse to release their sources. There is no national framework, however, and the protection available in the several states varies greatly.

As a side note here, given that blogging is in its infancy and we can't even decide whether bloggers are journalists, it will be awhile before we face this issue. Query here whether bloggers will take that risk?

Just yesterday, Senator Christopher Dodd, D-CT, introduced The Free Speech Protection Act of 2004, Senate Bill 3020 (text not yet available online). It would establish a comprehensive federal law to protect journalists from revealing their sources. Dodd will have to reintroduce the bill in January when Congress reconvenes.

Dodd, however, isn't the first to introduce such a bill. A student at NC State did earlier this year, although the focus was slightly different. Still, however, the point was the same: freedom of speech.

One argument in favor of the journalist privilege centers on the need to protect the source in order to allow the free exchange of information between the source and the journalist. The net (desired) result is that we end up with a more informed citizenry because information that would otherwise not have come to light gets discussed in the public forum.

Here's my concern. Who protects the citizenry from the spin doctors? With journalists competing for "news," and rampant leaks, how do we know that journalists aren't being used (and fed) "information" in the name of news? For that matter, how do we know the source is real?

Dodd's effort is commendable, but should there be some checks and balances on the privilege? The editors who have to balance these weighty issues against the almighty dollar, may not be in the best position to evaluate the veracity of the source and the wisdom of publishing that information.

But that's our system, and consequently free enterprise runs smack into the wall of freedom of speech. It looks like job security for judges won't be an issue for a long, long time.

Ultimately, you and I become the final arbiters, though. We get to vote with our pocketbook and decide whether to buy the newspaper and the products advertised in that newspaper.


Posted by J. Craig Williams on Saturday, November 20, 2004

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