Monday, October 22, 2007

Shield laws are whistleblower laws for investigative journalists

(Originally published 10/20/07)

After more than 100 attempts over 30-plus years, the U.S. House passed the first federal shield law Tuesday.

As discussed here last week, a free press is integral to any free society, and the ability of independent journalists to question and hold to account ruling governments is a powerful check on tyranny. Along with the unique protections of the First Amendment, shield laws help journalists fulfill their function as your watchdog.

Shield laws are simple: they protect journalists from being compelled to testify or reveal their sources in court. Think of it this way: substitute the government for any employer being investigated; instead of a pink slip for the employee who turned the bosses in, think of a subpoena delivered to the reporter asking questions. In effect, shield laws are whistleblower laws for journalists.

Shield laws are crucial to journalists who are investigating wrongdoing, especially where government officials or agencies are the subject of that investigation. Confidential sources have been the genesis of countless investigations uncovering all kinds of misdeeds, and they may provide leads and background information or help fill in the blanks for a reporter.

The importance of shield laws hasn’t been lost on the states. Although the Supreme Court in 1972 ruled that the Constitution does not protect journalist-source relationships, 33 states have shield laws for the press, while another 16 have judicial precedents that protect reporters, according to the Associated Press.

It is unclear whether the Senate will take up the bill before the end of the year, but even if it passes, President Bush has signaled that he will veto it:

  • In a memo released after the House passed the bill, the president’s advisers in the Office of Management and Budget said the Administration "strongly opposes" the bill because of its "unreasonable burdens and standards."
  • White House Press Secretary Dana Perino told reporters Tuesday that Bush Administration officials believe "that the protections that are in place currently for journalists were sufficient."

(Incidentally, could it be that they think the "protections (against appearing and testifying in federal legal proceedings) that are in place currently for journalists" are sufficient because, well, there are no federal protections "in place currently for journalists?" Just a thought.)

Congress was unable to override Bush’s veto of the S-CHIP expansion, falling 14 votes shy of the 287, or two-thirds, needed. But if Bush vetoes the shield law, an override is a certainty; the bill passed Tuesday with 398 votes.

Can you say bipartisan?

In his floor speech urging colleagues to vote for the bill, Indiana Rep. Mike Pence (R-Columbus) referred the federal shield as "truly … a stitch in what I believe is a tear in the fabric of the Bill of Rights." The bill’s passage on Tuesday should be considered a late gift to Americans in honor of National Newspaper Week.

* * *

Also last week, I pointed out the 1955 Pulitzer Prize won by the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger and the Sunday Ledger-Enquirer for their work on exposing corruption in Phenix City, Ala.

Two keen-eyed readers pointed out that the 1955 Pulitzer was, in fact, the Columbus papers’ second; the 1926 Pulitzer, also in public service, was awarded to the Enquirer-Sun, as it was called then, for " the service which it rendered in its brave and energetic fight against the Ku Klux Klan; against the enactment of a law barring the teaching of evolution; against dishonest and incompetent public officials and for justice to the Negro and against lynching."

What do you think the reporters at the Columbus papers in the 1920s and 1950s would say to President Bush about the importance of a federal shield?

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Internet will not make newspapers obsolete any time soon

Today marks the end of National Newspaper Week, a celebration of the impact newspapers have on the daily lives of their readers.

No one knows when the idea of the newspaper originated, but historians believe the first newspapers – quite literally, papers with news printed on them – were produced in Caesar’s Rome. As the centuries rolled on, the idea of information circulated on a printed page gained popularity, and the first newspaper, as we would recognize it, was published in the early 1600s.

Through the years, it became apparent that a free press is the linchpin of any free society. The ability of independent journalists to question and hold to account the ruling government is a powerful check on tyranny. Recognizing this, the Founding Fathers gave Americans an enduring protection in the First Amendment: "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …"

Those are lofty words for lofty ideas. But the reality is that journalists do their most important work away from the spotlight. Using open meetings, open records and public notices, they pore through government legalese, sit through tedious meetings week after week, make phone call after phone call to sources who may not respond and research, write and edit their work, all in the name of getting the story for you - and being your watchdog.

Because of their constitutional guarantee, newspapers are uniquely positioned to expose even the most heinous corruption and graft, wherever it may exist.

East Alabamians know something about this.

The 1955 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service was awarded to the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger and Sunday Ledger-Enquirer, "for its complete news coverage and fearless editorial attack on widespread corruption in neighboring Phenix City, which were effective in destroying a corrupt and racket-ridden city government." According to the Pulitzer Web site, "the newspaper exhibited an early awareness of the evils of lax law enforcement before the situation in Phenix City erupted into murder. It covered the whole unfolding story of the final prosecution of the wrong-doers with skill, perception, force and courage."

Readers should expect nothing less from the only constitutionally protected profession in America.

Such history notwithstanding, newspapers have suffered a crisis of identity with the advent of the Internet. Maybe it’s because I am the fifth generation of my family to work in newspapers, or maybe it’s because I’m a traditionalist, but I’m not one who believes that the Internet will render newspapers obsolete. I can’t believe that the Internet, "information superhighway" that it is, can better meet the daily needs and answer the broad challenges of your community than your local newspaper. But it’s up to the newspaper to focus on its strengths and do them well.

The Web is about speed; newspapers are about accuracy. The Web offers unlimited opinion; newspapers are about objectivity. The Web is global; your newspaper is local. Done right, newspapers should tell the otherwise unknown stories of your town, your state, your country, your world. They should tell your stories.

Newspapers aren’t perfect. Any product that is researched, written, designed, edited, marketed and sold by human beings is bound to have flaws. But those lofty ideas undergirding newspapers’ existence call their creators to the highest of standards, and more often than not, newspapermen and women meet that mark - not for a paycheck, mind you, for journalism is among this country’s poorest-paying professional pursuits - but because they are driven by public interest, their own dreams for a better world and their intense personal desire to tell you about it.

Happy National Newspaper Week!

Monday, October 8, 2007

S-CHIP showdown: Policy clash or political pawn?

President Bush engaged Congress this week in a D.C. showdown over S-CHIP, the State Children’s Health Insurance Plan.

According to the White House Press Office, Bush warned months ago that he would veto an expansion of S-CHIP much beyond the $5 billion, or 20 percent, he had proposed. But given that Bush has spent heavy political capital defending the Iraq war and that health care reform is a big issue ahead of next year’s elections, Democrats seized the opportunity to go to the mattresses with the president on it.

On Wednesday, Bush made good on his threat to veto the program’s reauthorization legislation, which featured a five-year, $35 billion expansion that would have made the government’s health insurance program available to 10 million more children per year.

Following the veto Wednesday, Bush said that the expansion went against the original purpose of S-CHIP, which was to help make health insurance available to poor children; the expansion, he said, would make government coverage available to children whose families earn up to $83,000, or four times the federal poverty rate. As such, it is believed that one in three new S-CHIP enrollees would leave the private insurance market for the government plan, creating a staggering weight under which the program would eventually collapse, the administration said.

Democratic congressional leaders have set Oct. 18 as the date they will try to override the veto. They have enough votes in the Senate, they say, but need between 15 and 20 in the House.

Readers of this space may remember that three weeks ago, I questioned whether Bush would have needed Gen. David Petraeus’ full-court public relations press on Iraq if the administration would have consistently communicated its policies to Americans over the last five years, instead of here and there when funding bills were under consideration. It seems that the administration’s lack of communication is again an issue with S-CHIP.

S-CHIP isn’t perfect, even before expansion. It’s estimated that a half-million children are eligible, but unenrolled, under existing guidelines. But what about those kids whose families clear the current ceiling for S-CHIP eligibility of $41,300, or 200 percent of the federal poverty rate, but earn less than the amount needed to make private insurance truly accessible?

There’s merit in guarding against such a major expansion to a government program, especially one that involves a shell game that would leave the program 80 percent unfunded in year six, as the administration said the bill did. Bush said Wednesday that he is “more than willing to work with members of both parties from both Houses, and if they need a little more money in the bill to help us meet the objective of getting help for poor children.”

And what is that amount? Isn’t that where the debate should have been? The New York Times noted in an editorial last week that a recent analysis of census data found that the number of uninsured children jumped by 710,000 last year; in addition, almost half of the increase was in families with incomes between 200 percent and 399 percent of poverty — “the very group the administration seems to believe is adequately insured and has no need of S-CHIP,” the editorial said.

Regardless of what happens on Oct. 18, this issue isn’t going away: the Times reported Wednesday that the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee has already begun radio ads and automated phone calls against eight Republicans in swing districts.

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, whether the S-CHIP reauthorization is really about children’s health insurance at all.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Turnham: Annual home appraisals to have ripple effects

(Originally published 9/29/07)

Alabama Democratic Party Chairman Joe Turnham returned Wednesday from Washington, where he huddled with party leaders about, among other things, Alabama’s Second Congressional District. U.S. Rep. Terry Everett (R-Rehobeth) touched off a political feeding frenzy when he announced this week that he will not seek re-election in 2008.

Turnham said that although political observers regard Alabama as a red state, Democrats ran well in 2006, demonstrating that "underneath, it’s still a blue state." Also:

• Turnham said he doesn’t expect Gov. Bob Riley to call a special session on ethics reform, but if he does, "Democrats are going to come with a full package of ethics bills," including a bill Riley vetoed earlier this year that would expand registration requirements for anyone lobbying the governor. Some consensus is building around a PAC-to-PAC transfer ban and other issues, Turnham said, but Senate Republicans will have to work with Democrats for anything to pass.

• The annual property reappraisal system Riley initiated with an executive order is having ripple effects, Turnham said. For example, he said, the recent defeats of millage rate increases for education in Auburn, Opelika and Lee County were a "pushback" against property taxes, which are already climbing because of increasing real estate values. "The governor does not need a special session to deal with annual reappraisals of property taxes," Turnham said. "In the view of this party chair, he could do it with a stroke of the pen." But, he said, reappraisal and insurance availability issues are so critical that they may trump ethics reform if Riley does call a special session.

• Democratic infighting in the Alabama Senate "really wasn’t as much philosophical as there were some deep-seated personal issues, some things that were done and said that perhaps shouldn’t have been done and said," Turnham said. "But I do think there’s been some hat-in-hand humility and some outreach to each other on a personal level." As a result, he estimates that Democrats are now within one vote of having the 21 they need for cloture. Turnham blames Riley for the feud: "A lot of the ill will and the bad feeling results from the way the governor got heavily involved, more than any governor in Alabama history, in trying to organize the Senate away from a duly elected majority of Democrats," Turnham said. "In doing that, he inflamed some personal feelings on the Democratic side." Now a lame duck, Riley should engage his own caucus and encourage them to work with Democrats, Turnham said.

• Moving Alabama’s presidential primary to Feb. 5 "has meant a great deal," Turnham said, considering Alabama has had dozens of visits from presidential candidates. "I’m real confident that it’s been a good debate and people have been energized by it," he said. If the election were held today, Turnham said he would expect Hillary Clinton to win the primary and Barack Obama and John Edwards to earn delegates.

• As a longtime political activist and two-time congressional candidate, Turnham said he’s "made enough political sausage to fill up about 10 Zeigler trucks … Not all of it’s been fun and pleasant, but I hope it leaves Alabama and the world better," he said. People encourage him to consider various races, he said, but he wants to build a career outside of politics. "I feel like I have a great impact behind the scenes," he said. For now, Turnham said, he is content with managing his party’s "pretty good bullpen of people" and fulfilling his state, regional and national political commitments. But, he added, "You never say never."