During last week’s congressional hearings on the Twitter Files, Democratic lawmakers called Matt Taibbi a "so-called journalist" while urging him to identify his sources despite his repeated refusals. Rep. Jim Jordan vocally defended Taibbi’s First Amendment rights, which are not dependent on politicians’ approval of his work. Right-leaning media outlets echoed Jordan’s outrage.
They’re right. Press freedom is not a partisan issue and is not limited to establishment-approved outlets. But currently there is no federal law protecting journalists from being forced to burn sources. Republicans should seize on this moment and quickly move to pass the PRESS Act — a strong federal “shield” bill that came within inches of becoming law last year. Everyone benefits when the press can expose government wrongdoing by working with sources who do not need to fear for their jobs or freedom.
We’ve previously explained why Americans of all political stripes should oppose government surveillance of journalists (including “so-called journalists”). If politicians think a reporter got a story wrong they can use their platform to correct the record rather than retaliating. The disturbing comments at the Twitter Files hearing underscore the urgency of passing the PRESS Act without delay.
Notably, the hearing came days after reports that the Federal Trade Commission demanded Twitter identify journalists to whom it provided information — a tactic that could enable further monitoring of those journalists. And the legislators who unsuccessfully pressured Taibbi to reveal his sources have admitted they want more than just names. They apparently hope to spy on “discussions” with sources to fish for information on some amorphous deal, of which no evidence exists. That should send a shiver down the spines of anti-surveillance conservatives.
The PRESS Act would bar the government from monitoring journalists’ conversations with sources outside national security emergencies. It defines journalists broadly enough to protect both mainstream and independent outlets, regardless of whether their reporting may upset politicians. It’s also unconcerned with whether sources may have political agendas. Virtually all sources do, but Democratic representatives suggested last week that journalists should only accept information from those who pass some kind of purity test. The PRESS Act would ensure politicians can never make those self-serving judgments.
The PRESS Act passed the House unanimously last year. It had bi-partisan support in the Senate, including from co-sponsors Ron Wyden and Mike Lee, but it was, unfortunately, omitted from the year-end omnibus package before the last Congress adjourned.
It will likely be reintroduced this year. Last week’s debacle is far from the first time Democratic officials have targeted conservative journalists but it once again underscores why Republicans should make passing the act a top priority.
Conservative support of shield legislation is nothing new. In addition to Jordan, Republicans from Lindsey Graham to Mike Pence to Bob Goodlatte have urged Congress to protect journalists and their sources from government snooping. With Jordan serving as House judiciary chair and Graham as the ranking Republican on the Senate committee, the PRESS Act should stand a strong chance of advancing. Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin also supports the act.
Republicans will have to overcome resistance from a minority in Congress who are under the false impression that a shield law would favor the “liberal media.” But last week’s events should dispose of that argument.
Now’s the time to make the PRESS Act the law of the land and protect “so-called journalists” from government overreach for good. And last week's hearing can serve as "Exhibit A" in making the case for the act to any skeptical conservatives.