Such a dialogue convinces each side to respect the sources and methods of the other, he said. The national security community needs to value professional journalists, “people carefully thinking about what they are doing, how they are doing it, the accuracy of the information, and the sensitivity.”

Goldberg agreed. “The dialogue is incredibly more important than any law.”

Politics vs. journalism

In the 40 years since Branzburg, we’ve seen more changes than just digital ones. Many leading industry groups then demanded an absolute First Amendment privilege to avoid turning over their sources, notes, and outtakes. Now those same organizations will settle for a shield that’s conditional and may not help the reporters doing the toughest stories.

We need to listen to the shield law dissenters and run their op-eds next to those of the supporters; to consider reviving a First Amendment framework for newsgathering in the digital age; to think about the tradeoff of protecting some reporters but not all, and to watch for last- minute changes in the bill that narrow the definition of journalists. We need to consider Armstrong’s idea that a dialogue might nip investigations in bud, and find out whether young, digital-age journalists would actually sit down with the government.

Infighting has killed past shield bills. The organizations believe a united front will help secure a federal shield law. But we still need a better debate. Politically, it might be right to rally around the law. Journalistically, it’s wrong.

 

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