Outraged that the government put reporters on its payroll, Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) introduced legislation last week that would require journalists to report such fees to the Department of Justice — or face imprisonment.
The Sunshine in Journalism Act of 2005 stipulates that journalists must disclose the amount of government money they have received within 30 days of payment. Journalists who fail to comply would face fines of up to $5,000 and up to 30 days in prison.
The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
Keller told The Hill yesterday that “it is a colossal waste of taxpayers’ money” to pay journalists to promote a government program and that he believed the bill would attract broad bipartisan support. Keller added that some members of the Democratic leadership had requested a Government Accountability Office investigation of the Bush administration’s practice.
According to Keller, current guidelines against paying journalists to promote an issue “have no teeth” and are usually limited to a footnote that says, “Money in this bill may not be used for propaganda.” He said he does not foresee any difficulty getting the bill through the Judiciary Committee.
“H.R. 649 was just introduced” on Feb. 8, a spokesman from the House Judiciary Committee said, adding that the committee is still reviewing it.
The bill “doesn’t even strike me as being close to constitutional,” said Lucy Dalglish, the executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “If you are trying to prevent this behavior, make it illegal for a government official to hire a journalist.”
“It may be unseemly to hire a journalist, but it is not illegal,” Dalglish said.
She added that enforcement of the law would be extremely difficult because “there is no definition in this country as to who a journalist is.”
The bill designates a print journalist as “a person employed by a newspaper … in which a substantial portion of the content is devoted to the dissemination of the news.”
The Newspaper Association of America had no comment on the legislation.
Keller noted that President Bush has ordered all of his Cabinet agencies to stop paying journalists to promote their policies. However, the congressman said he is seeking a lasting change.
“I do not know who the next president will be, and I want to make this change permanent,” he said.
The issue was brought to the forefront in early January when it was reported that the Bush administration paid some journalists to promote various programs. Conservative pundit Armstrong Williams, the first journalist to be publicly exposed, received $240,000 to promote the No Child Left Behind education law and to interview Department of Education Secretary Rod Paige during his broadcasts in 2004.
The Department of Health and Human Services paid columnist Michael McManus $4,000 to train marriage counselors as a part of an initiative to promote stronger families, and his group Marriage Savers received $49,000. The department also paid syndicated columnist Maggie Gallagher $21,500 to promote the marriage initiative.