Advocates for journalists may take agenda to K Street

The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) is leading a behind-the-scenes effort to build a coalition of media advocacy groups, aided by K Street lobbying firms, to pass legislation designed to improve access to government records and protect journalists from having to reveal unnamed sources.
The Newspaper Association of America (NAA) is leading a behind-the-scenes effort to build a coalition of media advocacy groups, aided by K Street lobbying firms, to pass legislation designed to improve access to government records and protect journalists from having to reveal unnamed sources.
Patrick G. Ryan

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) plans to introduce Freedom of Information Act legislation.

The NAA is discussing a partnership with the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press (RCFP) and the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), as well as the Associated Press and other news organizations.

“It’s premature to talk about what our plans are. We have not organized or put members together,” said Paul Boyle, the NAA’s vice president for government affairs.

Nevertheless, if the coalition is formalized it would be unique because the groups involved have had difficulty developing a shared agenda in the past. A coalition would signal their willingness to spend significant resources and hire PodestaMattoon, a well-connected lobbying firm, and other firms to press their agenda.

Meantime, Congress is moving forward on what the advocates view as separate but equally important pieces of legislation.

Reps. Mike Pence (R-Ind.) and Rick Boucher (D-Va.) last week introduced the Free Flow of Information Act, which would establish a federal shield law to protect journalists’ sources, who could be dissuaded from sharing sensitive information if they knew reporters could be compelled in court to release their names. Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) introduced his own version of a shield law last year and is working on drafting a new bill.

“A free press is the only real check on the exercise of government power in real time,” Pence said, adding that he had talked extensively with the House Judiciary Committee’s staff about the bill but had not spoken to Chairman Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.).

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) plans to introduce a bill that would make the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) a more user-friendly law for journalists and citizens who wish to obtain government information. If enacted, the bill would allow plaintiffs to recoup costs in FOIA lawsuits, lessen the burden of proof for citizens not associated with a news organization and tighten the time that government agencies have to respond to FOIA requests.

Enacting a federal shield law has attracted significant attention in the media and legal worlds.

A three-judge panel on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is deciding whether Matthew Cooper of Time magazine and Judith Miller of The New York Times can be jailed for refusing to disclose sources in the Bush administration who identified covert CIA operative Valerie Plame in 2003.

Although 31 states have some sort of shield law, no protections exist at the federal level and it has been more than 30 years since the federal courts have ruled on whether journalists can be compelled to betray anonymous sources in criminal investigations. The Supreme Court ruled in 1972 that there was no constitutional right or legal precedent for a journalist to protect sources.

“It’s a tough uphill fight,” said Kevin Goldberg, a First Amendment lawyer at Cohn & Marks who represents ASNE.

The effort to mobilize news organizations and their allies began last year at the behest of Tom Curley, the president and CEO of the Associated Press. He wanted to push more aggressively to persuade lawmakers to expand FOIA protections and shield journalists from criminal prosecution for not revealing their sources.

Curley wanted the AP to lead the lobbying effort on Capitol Hill and accepted requests for proposals from K Street firms, including PodestaMattoon. But the AP’s board of directors opposed such an effort because it would have put the wire service in the position of having to cover its own lobbying activities on Capitol Hill.

“The idea that the coalition would retain some consultant for a legislative strategy and take on some issues is still alive,” said Dave Tomlin, the AP’s assistant general counsel. “AP’s role in it may not be quite as prominent. Our board raised some justifiable concerns about advocacy work, even advocacy work for First Amendment issues, but the idea itself has value.”

A lawyer for one major newspaper said the AP had “stepped back a bit and the NAA has stepped up” in the lobbying effort. The NAA, for example, helped Pence find a co-sponsor for his bill, which would codify the Justice Department’s guidelines regarding how and when reporters have to disclose unnamed sources.

Sources familiar with the discussions about a coalition said an announcement could be expected next week.