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Good News for Whistleblowers

GOP leader Pence backs federal shield laws 3/20/2005 07:00:00 PM Eastern

Rep. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) is a rare commodity in Washington. He is an evangelical Christian and an up-and-comer among GOP leaders. But he is also championing a critical cause of journalists at a time when the media's conservative allies are as scarce as a Baptist preacher at a pro–gay-marriage rally.

Pence is the chief House sponsor of legislation that would allow reporters to protect the identities of whistleblowers and other sources who help them to uncover government waste and corporate malfeasance and shed light on criminal investigations. If enacted, the law would cover cases brought by federal investigators. For protection against state and local investigators, reporters would still need a safeguard in state shield laws, of which 31 are already in place. Proponents hope passage of a federal law would make it easier to enact shields in the remaining 19 states.

Until Pence took up the cause, journalism organizations expected an uphill, half-decade fight to win a federal shield law. His support will help garner more conservative backing for the idea and help persuade the White House, which is relying on the Indianan to help promote its Social Security privatization plan among skeptical Republican lawmakers.

First elected to Congress in 2000, Pence is a former GOP deputy whip and is currently chairman of the House Republican Study Committee, the panel charged with setting GOP legislative priorities in the House. He is also a former broadcaster: He hosted conservative talker The Mike Pence Show on 18 radio stations from 1992 to 1999, as well as a TV version on UPN stations for four years.

Passage possible

Pence even persuaded fellow Indianan Richard Lugar to sponsor his bill on the other side of Capitol Hill. Now media lobbyists say passage is possible before the current congressional session ends next year.

“There's no question that getting GOP support has improved chances for passage,” says Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association. “Everybody in the business got excited when Pence decided to take this on.”

The fight for a federal shield law is gaining steam among journalists and friendly lawmakers like Pence at a time when more federal judges and prosecutors are using the threat of jail time to muscle confidential information from TV and print journalists.

“When reporters start going to jail, it will elevate this issue,” says Paul Boyle, lobbyist for the Newspaper Association of America, which is spearheading the news business's legislative campaign.

Reporters threatened

Jim Taricani, an Emmy Award-winning reporter for WJAR Providence, R.I., is under home detention for refusing to reveal who leaked a videotape of top city officials taking a bribe from an FBI informant. The New York Times star reporter Judith Miller and Time magazine veteran Matthew Cooper are under threat of being jailed for refusing to reveal whether they were contacted by a member of the Bush administration trying to blow the cover of CIA operative Valerie Plame in order to discredit her husband, a State Department official critical of White House policy in Iraq.

In the past year, 12 reporters were threatened with jail time for refusing to reveal confidential sources.

“Without the promise of confidentiality, many important conduits of information about government activity would be shut down,” Pence said when he introduced his legislation last month. “Compelling reporters to testify and, in particular, compelling them to reveal the identity of their confidential sources is a detriment to the public interest.”

Democratic co-sponsors of the legislation are Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia and Sen. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut.

Boyle predicts both Judiciary Committees will hold hearings on the legislation in late summer or early fall.

Despite the industry's surprise at Pence's help, there is nothing strange about the congressman's endorsement of a shield law, says Skip Brown, a spokesman for the lawmaker.

“He believes Americans have a right to know what's going on in their government,” Brown says. “Conservatives have an obligation to preserve all 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights. They can't pick and choose.”

March