President George W. Bush says he's a "First Amendment guy," but stops short of endorsing a proposed federal shield law.
In a meeting with the Radio-Television News Directors Association Board at the Executive Office Building June 1, President Bush declined to support a federal shield law, the Free Flow of Information Act, which would protect journalists from being compelled to reveal sources by a federal court. The President said he did not know enough about the bill.
RTNDA had requested the meeting to talk about the law, among a host of other topics. An excerpted transcript is available at http://www.rtnda.org/news/2005/050602b.shtml"This is the age-old battle," he said, according to an RTNDA transcript. "We’re constantly trying to find 'the source in the White House,' the unidentified source. Seems like to me the balance is just right when you think about it. If you think about all the unnamed sources in Washington, D.C., that affect a lot of stories, relative to the actual number of reporters that have actually been called into account.
"I’m sure your organization wants no reporters called into account. I don’t know what the right balance is. On the other hand, I don’t know what the law says, so I can’t tell you if I’m for it or against it."
While saying that "anyone running for President is a First Amendment person," he also said that "There’s some information which could damage our ability to collect information, and that’s where the real rub has been so far, from my perspective.”
Bush said one of the reasons he has been stumping the country on issues like Social Security reform is to take the message directly to the local media as well as the people, saying: "Part of the reason I’m going around the country, by the way, is because not everyone gets their news from the national news. In all due respect to the national Pooh-Bahs, most people get their news from the local news. And if you’re trying to influence opinion, the best way to do it is to travel hard around the country and give the people their dues [sic]."
There was no mention in the transcript of questions or answers regarding the President's stand on local news' use of government-issued video news releases on key administration programs, which has become a big issue in Washington.
RTNDA President Barbara Cochran pointed out that though the interview went 54 minutes rather than the scheduled half-hour--the president was "expansive" in his answers, she says--they still left a lot of questions on the table. Cochran said she wasn't sure what more he has to say on VNR's beyond that the industry should identify them..
Of the shield law issue, Cochran said: "I think we were able to put it on his radar screen," adding she plans to follow up with the administration."
It was the first meeting between the RTNDA board and a sitting President since 1946 (Harry Truman), though President Carter also met with an RTNDA delegation in 1977, according to the group.
Following is the transcript of the President's take on the First Amendment:
"Obviously this is an important issue for all of us – what the public should know, and what the public shouldn’t know.
"Look, I’m a First Amendment guy. Anyone running for President is a First Amendment person. You gotta honor that. How can you not be a First Amendment guy? I was out there raising heck as a challenger. I told that to Mubarak [Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak] today, “If you want a free election, let them speak out. Let them speak out in the town square, as Natan Sharansky [former Israeli cabinet minister and frequent critic against his government on Palestinian affairs] would put it.
"A free society is where people feel free without retribution to speak. A good society is one where information flows to the people. We’re of the people. On the other hand, there’s some information which could damage our ability to collect information, and that’s where the real rub has been so far from my perspective. There are means of collection, for example, if that were to get out, it would tip off the enemy about what we’re trying to do.
"And it’s a delicate balance. And I gotta tell you, after having gone through 9/11, my bias, my slant, is toward making damn sure we can get all the information we want to get, without tipping the enemy. Because I’m worried about it. I’m worried the people will come back, rise up again. And we’re doing a pretty good job of dismantling them…
"Let me talk about a couple of broader civil liberties unions that relate to free speech, for example. The Patriot Act has called our intentions into question as to whether we honor the First Amendment. There is nothing in the Patriot Act that government is allowed to do that does not pertain to other types of criminals. Like health-care fraud. In other words, what we did was take the very same tools that the FBI had in other types of criminal cases, and extended them to terrorists"
"Another thing was important to be done was to change law, based on reaction to the period of time we just started discussing about this Deep Throat deal, where they actually walled off the capacity of parts of the FBI to speak to each other – the intelligence-gathering and the law enforcement…
"I tell you an interesting ethical dilemma that the President has to deal with. And that is, if you’re in my shoes, and you thought Abu Farraj al-Libbi had planned an attack on America, would you use any means necessary to get the information from him? And the decision I have made is “No, we will not.” And let’s just pray he doesn’t have that information. And when I told the American people we’re not torturing, we’re not torturing. But try that on for an interesting ethical dilemma as the President of the United States. "