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Shield Now

Whenever we hear the professional cynics say it really doesn't make any difference who runs the country—politicians are all the same—we want to pounce. Because clearly, the person who is the chief executive sets the tone and the agenda for the nation.

Earlier in April and again last week, the Bush administration, through Attorney General Michael Mukasey and three other White House officials, came out against the Free Flow of Information Act proposed by Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). They claimed the proposed law could harm national security and prod government employees to shovel classified documents to the press.

This opposition is altogether consistent with the president's view about sharing facts. Disclosing information meant the public learned there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example, and that has a way of making the president uncomfortable.

But we are happy that the current crop of presidential hopefuls—Republican John McCain and Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton—support the Specter bill, and that previously Obama drafted his own legislation. This bill's House version was inked by Republican Rep. Mike Pence from Indiana, who has been a consistent and tireless crusader for a national shield law. Sens. Clinton and Obama signed on as co-sponsors to the Senate version. Clinton last week took the opportunity to also promise an open administration that would open up the dealings of the White House to the press corps, a good add-on to her support. The House version of the bill has already passed 398-21, so it would seem this bill would be veto-proof.

McCain's support was not as full, but was the most articulate. “I'm willing to invest in the press a very solemn trust that in the use of confidential sources you will not do more harm than good, whether it comes to the security of the nation or the reputation of good people,” he said at The Associated Press Annual Meeting last week. “And I would hope then when you do something controversial or something that many people find wrong and harmful, that you would explain fully and honestly how and why you did it, and confess your mistakes.” He also asked that newspapers and magazines publish corrections in a prominent way; we wish television stations and networks did, too.

The fact that all three candidates will endorse a shield law is a historic victory for civil libertarians and regular old reporters. According to the Society for Professional Journalists (SPJ), 32 states and Washington, D.C., have various laws that protect the press; the federal government does not. This bill shields not only mainstream media reporters, but also covers bloggers and other characters who populate the Internet. That, in part, is the Bush administration's objection to it. They are afraid that terrorists will use the law to avoid prosecution, a scenario that sounds so remote as to make it not worth considering. This is legislation that by appearances could be passed into law even before a new president is in office. This magazine, and several media groups, have fought for federal shield law protection for years. It's about time.