In a proposed amendment to a media shield law being considered by the Senate, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Il) appear to define journalists in a way which excludes non-traditional journalists including most Pagan media and journalists. The Senate Judiciary Committee approved the amendment, which was written in coordination with traditional news organizations, by a 13-5 vote. It was then sent to the Senate floor where it is expected to pass. It’s fate in the House is less certain.
The Bill, S. 987: Free Flow of Information Act of 2013, seeks to provide reporters with a limited right to refuse to testify on information gathered or to be forced to reveal sources. The House Bill defines a journalist as someone who “for financial gain or livelihood, is engaged in journalism” while originally the Senate version had a looser definition. The proposed amendment by Sen. Feinstein and Sen. Durbin requires journalists to meet at least one of these three additional criteria:
- working as a “salaried employee, independent contractor, or agent of an entity that disseminates news or information;”
- either (a) meeting the prior definition “for any continuous three-month period within the two years prior to the relevant date” or (b) having “substantially contributed, as an author, editor, photographer, or producer, to a significant number of articles, stories, programs, or publications by an entity . . . within two years prior to the relevant date;” or
- working as a student journalist “participating in a journalistic publication at an institution of higher education.”
Requiring that an individual is “salaried”or under a financial contract is problematic for Pagan news organizations as most reporters and contributors are volunteers or are not employed in journalism as their primary source of income. All PNC-News reporters, editors, and contributors are not paid. The Wild Hunt pays its contributors, but it’s a modest amount that could not be considered earning a “livelihood.”
The second criteria is also a difficult hurdle for Pagan journalists. The amendment is vague on what comprises an “entity” that reporters need to send their work in to and what a “significant number of articles” within a two year time table means. It’s not clear if Pagan news outlets would be considered an “entity” under this amendment.
PNC-Minnesota Webmaster and Researcher Heather Biedermann said, “Even if we paid our staff, who in the government decides what is an approved media outlet? To me, this seems like a thinly-veiled attempt to put in place a “government-friendly” group of approved news reporters who are handpicked by some unknown agency to spread their own spin on the news. It also is a backhanded way of discrediting the growing grass-roots news media that we are seeing all around the world. Not only does it discredit, but it also endangers news sites like PNC. Who is to say that this isn’t the beginning of finding ways to limit free speech in general?”
The effects of the proposed Bill could strip away protections independent news organizations have been slowly gaining on the state level. In November of 2010, PNC-Minnesota published an article relating a rape survivors experience while undergoing an enhanced search by TSA agents. The article quickly went viral and was republished or linked to by traditional news sources. PNC-Minnesota received a request from the TSA to reveal our source for the article. We refused, citing Minnesota’s shield law and the traditional protections afforded members of the press and backed by the First Amendment of the United States. There was no response from the TSA.
Supporters of the Bill say it is a good compromise between protecting national security against leaks and protecting the rights of a free press, “I can’t support it if everyone who has a blog has a special privilege … or if Edward Snowden were to sit down and write this stuff, he would have a privilege. I’m not going to go there,” said Sen. Feinstein.
Bloggers, alternative media, and civil liberties groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) have criticized the Bill as creating two classes of reporters, the traditional media licensed by the government, and everyone else. In an article on the proposed Bill, Morgan Weiland of EFF wrote, “The requirement of doing journalism for money and on a consistent basis, coupled with the suggestion that such activities happen within a larger journalistic organization, paints a picture of a New York Times correspondent—and arguably excludes bloggers, freelancers, and other non-salaried individuals who practice the craft of journalism and need the most protection.”
PNC-News Editor in Chief and Founder and Editor of the Wild Hunt Jason Pitzl-Waters had this to say about the legislation, “Author and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis has said that ‘there are no journalists, there is only the service of journalism,’ a sentiment that I would broadly agree with. There are those who make their living reporting and investigating the news, but our history is full of individuals who, in key moments, rose up to document important events, to give voices to voiceless communities, or to expose hidden wrongs. Any protections for journalists that do no protect grass-roots manifestations of the service of journalism are not only flawed, but chilling. Would Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker be covered under these provisions? Would Gandhi’s newsletters advocating for an independent India? The farther down the road we travel into creating hurdles to legal protections, the more we damage the service, in essence dictating who is a ‘real’ journalist. The heart of journalism is a radical heart, because it creates an informed community, these guidelines can only hinder journalism’s purpose.”