Media groups rev up lobbying effort

Media advocacy groups have banded together and hired a prominent lobbying firm to press for new laws to reduce government secrecy and shield reporters from having to name confidential sources in criminal proceedings. The decision by news media to go on the offensive on Capitol Hill at a time when journalists face possible jail time for refusing to name contacts was revealed by Paul Boyle, senior vice president for public policy of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA).

Media advocacy groups have banded together and hired a prominent lobbying firm to press for new laws to reduce government secrecy and shield reporters from having to name confidential sources in criminal proceedings.

The decision by news media to go on the offensive on Capitol Hill at a time when journalists face possible jail time for refusing to name contacts was revealed by Paul Boyle, senior vice president for public policy of the Newspaper Association of America (NAA).

“The shield-law issue developed before the coalition did, but there are also so many proposed rules to shut down government access,” Boyle said, explaining that a shield law and greater access for journalists are separate but equally important issues and saying, “We’ll be playing in both.”

News media have wrestled for years with how best to approach these issues, having been concerned, for example, about a conflict of interest in reporting a story in which their own interests were minutely involved. Now, however, their access and protection concerns have become sufficiently acute that media are willing to lobby formally on the subject. They also now have specific legislation to support.

The newly created pressure group, will work to pass the OPEN Government Act (S. 394) that was introduced by Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). The legislation’s intent is to streamline the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), a nearly 40-year-old law that advocates argue has become overly complicated and burdensome to those trying to obtain government information.

Cornyn, chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Property Rights, plans a hearing March 15. Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has introduced similar legislation in the House.

The Sunshine in Government Initiative, led by the NAA, which represents newspaper publishers, has hired PodestaMattoon, to help navigate Congress, and the Aker Partners, a public-relations firm. In 2004, the NAA paid PodestaMattoon $60,000 over a six-month period.

While the Sunshine Initiative was created initially to streamline FOIA, the absence of a federal shield law has garnered media attention in recent months because a special prosecutor has subpoenaed reporters from Time and The New York Times to discover the origins of press reports naming Valerie Plame as a CIA covert agent. They are being compelled to testify because they may have been witness to a crime.

Most states have laws shielding reporters from such subpoenas and Justice Department guidelines protect “news media from forms of compulsory process, whether civil or criminal, which might impair the news gathering function.”

Last month, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled that the reporters had no First Amendment or common-law protection.

Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) have introduced legislation seeking to make the Justice Department guidelines federal law.

Sens. Richards Lugar (R-Ind.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) have introduced similar legislation.