Recently, on Thom Hartmann’s national TV show, Rep. Alan Grayson gave the inside story on how he was able to pass a shield law protecting reporter sources in the Tea Party-controlled U.S. House of Representatives at 12:40 am one night, with 175 Democrat votes and 53 Republican votes. Here is how it went:
Thom Hartmann: In the Best of the Rest of the News, if the Senate doesn’t screw things up, we might finally get the kind of media shield law that our democracy requires. Late last month, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives passed the so-called Commerce, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2015 (H.R. 4660) by a margin of 321 to 87. There’s nothing all that interesting about H.R. 4660 – it’s your basic cut-and-dry appropriations bill that lays out how a handful of federal agencies, including the DOJ, can spend their money. H.R. 4660 is the kind of bill that Congress passes all the time, without a lot of media attention. But, believe it or not, there actually is something really interesting about H.R. 4660, something that could have a huge impact on how our government interacts with the only industry mentioned by name in the Constitution: the Press. That something is H.R. 4660 Section 561, an amendment sponsored by Florida Congressman Alan Grayson. Section 561 says, “None of the funds made available by this Act may be used to compel a journalist or reporter to testify about information or sources . . . that he regards as confidential.” Basically, what this means is that the government can’t force journalists to testify in court against their sources, even if their sources are on trial for leaking really top secret information that, in the government’s opinion, could threaten national security. This is a huge deal. Right now, the Obama administration is trying to make New York Times reporter James Risen testify in the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a CIA agent whom Risen used as a source for his book on the CIA. Risen tried getting out of testifying against Sterling by appealing his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, but that court refused to hear his appeal, confirming a lower court’s decision that said that Risen couldn’t ignore a subpoena just because he’s a journalist. Risen’s case cuts right to the heart of freedom of the press, and he could actually end up going to jail over this. When the government makes journalists testify against their sources, it basically makes it impossible for them to do their jobs, at least in any meaningful way, and it scares other potential sources from even thinking about talking to a reporter.This isn’t just bad for the media. It’s bad for democracy.We need the media to be the Fourth Estate, a functional fourth branch of government that keeps the other three in check, and holds them responsible. And when reporters can’t work with sources, especially government sources, because those sources are scared that they’ll testify against them, that makes it impossible for the press to do what it needs to do the most – cover government corruption, secret CIA programs, and other malfeasance by insiders. We need a media shield law that protects acts of journalism, as well as journalists themselves. That’s why Section 561 of the Commerce, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act is so crucial. It protects the most important act that any journalist can ever do – work with sources to write a story. The House of Representatives has spoken. It believes in protecting the freedom of press. Soon we’ll find out if the Senate does, too. Joining me now for more on this is the man behind Section 561 of the Commerce, Science, and Related Appropriations Act, Alan Grayson, the Congressman from Florida’s Ninth Congressional District. Congressman, welcome back to the program.
Congressman Alan Grayson: Thank you.
Thom: Thanks so much for joining us. Thanks so much for putting forward this amendment. I’m really, really[impressed]. This is a good thing. One of the interesting things about your amendment is that it passed with substantial bipartisan support. Initially, it was declared on a voice vote not to have passed, and you called for a roll call, and it turned out 53 Republicans and 172 Democrats voted for it. Your thoughts on that, on the bipartisan nature of that?
Alan: Well, it was appealing to Democrats because it’s a standard civil liberties issue. It’s in the Constitution – freedom of the press is in the First Amendment. We’ve had this problem now going back 42 years, since an unwise Supreme Court decision that said that there was no such thing as a journalism shield law, except in extreme circumstances. And for 42 years, people of good conscience have been trying to change that, and make sure that the free flow of information can continue. Unfortunately, the courts have looked to Congress to act, and Congress has failed to act. In this case, we appealed to Democrats as a civil liberty issue, we appealed to Republicans as a constitutional issue. They often claim to be supporters and respecters of the Constitution and we said, “Read it, see what it says.”
The First Amendment prevents this kind of activity by the government that is happening time after time, to the point where journalism is becoming a felony. And when I made that argument to the Republicans, 53 of them accepted it, and we did reverse the result of that voice vote.
Thom: Now, your amendment passed just days before the Supreme Court refused to hear James Risen’s appeal. Were you putting that amendment together with his case in mind, or was it just a coincidence? What are your thoughts on the Risen case?
Alan: Well, I think it’s an example of a problem that’s been with us for many, many years. There have been reporters that have actually been incarcerated for failure to reveal their sources, when their sources were confidential sources. We have to respect the free flow of information in this country. If we don’t, then we’re all losers. We are well on our way to establishing first-class and second-class citizenship just by virtually the fact that five million people now have access to classified information and 300 million don’t. That alone means we’re heading for difficult days. In this case, the media, going back to the Pentagon Papers and earlier, has tried desperately to point out to us unconstitutional acts by the government. But the national security system then goes and tries to incarcerate both the whistleblowers and the reporters for simply doing their jobs.
Thom: Under the Obama administration, we’ve seen a pretty massive clamp-down on leakers -- to be honest, an almost Nixonian assault on journalists who report leaks. Risen himself has called the Obama administration a threat to the freedom of the press, which makes me uncomfortable. What’s your take on this administration’s record on press issues, or is this just what the Executive Branch does, cover up what the Executive Branch is doing?
Alan: I think it’s unfortunate. There’s one particular law involved here that the administration, the Obama administration, has applied to whistleblowers more than all other administrations combined. I don’t understand exactly why the administration is acting this way. I wish they would rethink that. If we’ve reached the point where a journalist like Glenn Greenwald needs to fear for his own safety and freedom returning to his country of origin, then we’ve really gone astray. But I’m encouraged by the fact that Republicans, more and more, see this issue the same way that Democrats do, and we were able to get a vote on an important issue like this despite the normal iron grip of the Republican leadership, that has us voting on establishing committees and renaming post offices as much as anything else.
Thom: Procedurally, does this now go to the Senate for consideration, or is the Senate creating its own version which then will end up going into conference committee?
Alan: Yes, one of the beauties of this approach is that both the House and the Senate have to vote on appropriations bills each year or otherwise the government shuts down. We’ve been very active in my office in taking advantage of that fact. Typically, the House leadership, the Republican House leadership, has denied us votes on immigration reform, on minimum wage increase, and so on. So we take advantage of these must-pass votes, in order to put in progressive ideals in the form of legal proposals. This will go to the Senate, like every other appropriations bill goes to the Senate. This is one of the secrets in the way that we were able to pass 13 amendments on the Floor of the House last year, more than any other member of Congress, Democrat or Republican, even though we lose every single time on a party-line vote.
Thom: ‘We’ being Alan Grayson?
Alan: ‘We’ being Alan Grayson, whom Slate Magazine said was the most effective member of the House because of this.
Thom: Wow. That’s pretty damn impressive. So, what do you think the odds are that the Senate is just going to pass this bill as it stands and it goes right to the President, versus they’re going to go back into, for example, your amendment, and pull it out or fiddle with it?
Alan: I think that the Senate will definitely not pass the bill as written, because it includes very harsh budget cuts in other areas of the bill that the Senate and the American people simply don’t agree with. This is largely a Tea Party bill. What I’m hoping is that people will appeal to senators, individual senators, to support the shield law, and that there are certain champions of freedom of speech, like Senator Bernie Sanders in the Senate, who will pick this up as a cause of his own. . . .
Thom: We have just a minute left. If I could just go back to the press for a second. When Dianne Feinstein started talking about “let’s only have a shield law that protects people who get a paycheck as a reporter,” I suggested that we should be protecting acts of journalism as opposed to journalists. I’m curious, [what are] your thoughts on that distinction?
Alan: I agree with you, and in fact, in order to make that point clear, I submitted legislative history. One of the nice things about our amendments is that they’re short. This was 52 words. But sometimes you need to explain exactly what you meant. That Grayson amendment now is backed up by four pages in the Congressional Record explaining that point and other points about how this amendment is to be applied.
Thom: That’s great. Congressman Alan Grayson, you’re doing such great work in the United States House of Representatives.
Alan: Thank you.
Thom: Thanks so much for being with us. Thank you.
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