News Media
Calling all bloggers: Are you �covered� under House �reporter�s shield law�?
By Margie Burns
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Oct 19, 2007, 01:42

Yesterday the House passed by a substantial margin its version of the �reporter�s shield law,� titled the Free Flow of Information Act of 2007. The House version differs from the Senate bill of the same title in its definition of �covered person,� basically the definition of who is a journalist.

The Senate version reads, �(2) COVERED PERSON- The term `covered person' means a person who is engaged in journalism and includes a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such person.�

The House version expands on this significantly: �(2) COVERED PERSON- The term `covered person' means a person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public for a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or for substantial financial gain and includes a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such covered person.�

For many reasons, the Senate version looks better.

First, a disclaimer: so far as I know, I don�t have a dog in this fight. I don�t foresee having this kind of problem. Anyone who tried to force me to say something I didn�t want to say, a remote possibility, would be crossing a line; and anyway I tend to favor disclosure in the public interest. Administration �sources� do not call me up as a means to toss Lawrence Lindsey overboard, or Tom DeLay, or Alberto Gonzales, or any other public official, career or appointee. Nobody tells me anything. Or to put it more precisely, a source might tell me things, but then I usually cite by name unless there�s a general-information kind of paraphrase involved, or just gossip, or some other good reason not to. And while I have been quasi-mugged on the street -- by some guy who knocked me down & hit me, etc w/out taking my bags -- and have gotten a certain amount of nasty mail -- though the letters of praise by far outnumber the other kind -- I have never had anyone lean on me to pry confidential information out of me. It is unlikely to happen, since I�m not what they used to call �easy.� I despise the insiders who call up some �journalist� to plant a smear, anonymously or �confidentially.� Journalists should not be serving as our contemporary substitute for the Lion�s Mouth in Renaissance Venice in a behind-the-scenes system of anonymous denunciation.

But a rational observer, evaluating this �reporter�s shield,� would have to look at who IS �covered� under the House definition, and who is NOT. A key passage, as readers may already know, is that bit about �a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or for substantial financial gain.� Admittedly, this passage takes a certain amount of guesswork, since the terms �substantial portion� and �substantial financial gain� do not come with dollar amounts. Still . . .

Here, in all likelihood, are some of the people NOT COVERED under this definition:

  • Most bloggers, except for reportedly Matt Drudge

  • Many web site editors and producers, especially of left-leaning, �liberal,� green or progressive web sites

  • Almost all web site editors and producers of small web sites across the Net

  • Many or most columnists for small community newspapers such as the Prince George�s Journal, where I published articles from 1996 to 2004, and the Prince George�s Sentinel, where I published articles 2004-2006

  • Many reporters for small community newspapers

  • Many editors for small community newspapers

  • Many publishers of small community newspapers: producing them may involve expense but not necessarily profit, income

  • Any journalist contributing to a periodical on a volunteer basis

  • Many or most freelancers, depending on the time frame for defining finances

  • Retired journalists who weigh in with an occasional column or article at, e.g., the WashPost�s op-ed page

  • Interns who perform journalistic duties at recognized media outlets but without much pay or a job guarantee

Here, on the other hand, are some of the people COVERED under this definition:

  • Almost everyone who works for Fox News

  • Matt Drudge

  • Almost everyone who works for any of the major media outlets -- CNN, the three original networks, their subsidiaries; the large daily newspapers; etc -- as long as that person has a good regular salary; see interns and retirees above

  • Salaried writers and editors working for any of the trade periodicals -- insurance, trucking, pharmaceuticals, etc.

  • Talk radio hosts, their writers and producers, if their income comes mostly from the gig

In other words, a 'covered person' is basically anyone Bob Novak could tolerate, and not covered is everyone who might hypothetically or even accidentally be perceived as a threat to the Novaks of this world. Is it any wonder that this bill was introduced by the GOP and that it has passed by a whopping margin, in a House full of terrified incumbents? Or that it is supported by the same mediocre media outlets that facilitated GWBush in the White House, the non-investigation of 9/11, and the Iraq war?

John Conyers (D-Mich.) is one of my personal heroes, one of the best people in Congress, ever, not just for our time but a man for all seasons. I am absolutely confident that he supported this measure for the best of reasons.

Too bad about the way it breaks down into people on one side, money on the other. It will be interesting to see what happens in conference, if the Senate passes its version. I�m not too optimistic; good thing I never looked to Congress for protection anyway. More the other way around, as I see it.

Margie Burns, a freelance writer in the Washington, DC, area, can be reached at

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