I really don’t intend to keep writing about the odious reporter’s shield bill that the media conglomerates are all pushing, but Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times had an editorial so obtuse that it demanded a response. The Times noted that reporters had been ordered to disclose their sources in Dr. Steven Hatfill’s Privacy Act case against the Department of Justice and the FBI, and that “[a] similar suit by former nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee . . . was settled last year after the government and five news organizations — including The Times — agreed to pay Lee a total of $1.65 million.” The Times then argued that a “robust federal [reporter’s] shield law” was necessary, or else “other aggrieved parties will be tempted to follow Hatfill’s path.” The Times didn’t say what other option these aggrieved parties might have.
Hence my letter, which was as follows:
Your editorial in favor of the “Free Flow of Information Act of 2007” implies (with apparent approval) that people like Dr. Steven Hatfill would be unable to pursue cases under the Privacy Act of 1974 if journalists were free to conceal the identities of the sources who feed them anonymous smears from time to time. Your desire to save journalists the time and expense of cooperating in such lawsuits is understandable, if not particularly noble.
Unfortunately, the smears happen, and people like Dr. Hatfill suffer real injuries as a result. Depriving courts of evidence in such cases would not make the injuries go away; it would only leave the victims uncompensated. In the name of free speech, the Steven Hatfills of the world would bear the enormous cost your Wild West model of public discourse imposes randomly on the innocent, but none of that cost would ever touch the press. How very nice for you.
Congress, in the Privacy Act, had the better idea that people injured by government leaks should be able to demand justice from the government. Under the law, reporters do not have to pay for the damage they help to cause; all they have to do is give evidence when they have it. If reporters are not even willing to shoulder the same burden of truth-telling in court that every other citizen shoulders, how dare you ask much greater sacrifices from people like Dr. Hatfill?
I am sorry to say that The Times did not print this letter. “Free flow of information” indeed.
In the “credit where credit is due” department, The Times did say that the government’s focus on Dr. Hatfill during the anthrax investigation was “mistaken.” Now they tell us.
UPDATE: In the “better late than never” department, The Times printed a portion of my letter today, September 16. Obviously, this surprised me; I had already given up on them before writing the post above. (I e-mailed the letter on the evening of the 11th, and by Friday the 14th The Times had already printed letters responding to more recent articles.)
By the way, for those readers of this blog who are inclined to point out that it should be “Whom does a shield law protect?” I didn’t write that part.