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Weekly column: Who should you call a journalist, nowadays?

Weekly column: Who should you call a journalist, nowadays?
Weekly column: Who should you call a journalist, nowadays? 

Perspective:  So who should you call a journalist?
By Declan McCullagh
October 24, 2005, 4:00 AM PDT

A renewed effort in the U.S. Congress to create a federal shield law for 
news organizations is raising a sticky question: Who is a journalist?

A generation ago, the answer usually was clear. Not anymore. Online 
scribes and video publishers are experimenting with novel forms of 
journalism, and even the most stodgy news organizations are embracing blogs.

That leaves politicians--hardly the most clued in about all things 
tech--in something of a quandary. They're being lobbied by professional 
news organizations and the American Bar Association to approve some kind 
of journalist's shield law while being urged by prosecutors to leave out 

The justification for a shield law is a perfectly reasonable one. After 
a federal appeals court enforced grand jury subpoenas against The New 
York Times and Time magazine, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to 
take the case, news organizations decided to fix the law.

The Justice Department took a swipe at the leading shield proposal 
(H.R.3323/S.1419) during a Senate hearing last week, arguing that it 
would let criminals pose as bloggers.

[...remainder snipped...] 



Such an expansive definition of =93covered person=94 could unintentionally 
offer a safe haven for criminals. As drafted, the definition invites 
criminals to cloak their activities under the guise of a =93covered 
person,=94 so as to avoid investigation by the Federal government. The 
overbroad definition of a =93covered person=94 could be read to include any 
person or corporate entity whose employees or corporate subsidiaries 
publish a book, newspaper, or magazine; operate a radio or television 
broadcast station; or operate a news or wire service. Additionally, the 
definition arguably could include any person who sets up an Internet 
=93blog=94 or any other activity to =93disseminate information by print, 
broadcast, cable satellite[, etc.],=94 as set forth in the bill.

More generally, the Department does not believe that legislation is 
necessary because there is no evidence that the subpoena power is being 
abused by the Department in this context. The Department prides itself 
on its record of objectivity in reviewing press subpoenas, and any 
legislation that would impair the discretion of the Attorney General to 
issue press subpoenas =96 or to exercise any other investigative options 
in the exercise of the President=92s constitutional powers =96 is 
unwarranted. For the last 33 years, the Department of Justice has 
authorized subpoenas to the news media only in a small number of cases 
involving serious allegations of criminal conduct. Since 1991, 3.7% of 
the media subpoena requests processed by the Criminal Division for 
Attorney General approval were for confidential source material.

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