Free Flow of Information — For Me!

James Taranto of the Wall Street Journal attended a Manhattan Institute symposium earlier this week on the federal media shield legislation, i.e., the Free Flow of Information Act. In his “Best of the Web” column, Taranto articulates well the media’s special pleading:

There is something paradoxical, even a tad Orwellian, about the title of the bill, the “Free Flow of Information Act.” The act would not declassify or otherwise release to the public a single shred of information. Its direct effect would be the opposite: It would grant the protection of federal law to a new category of secrets.

If “the free flow of information” were always and everywhere the uppermost value, there would be no reason to object to compelling journalists to testify. Indeed, such testimony would be desirable, since it would add to the flow of information.

Of course, context is crucial. [Former NYT reporter Judith] Miller and other shield-law proponents argue that protecting the identity of confidential sources promotes the free flow of information by allowing “whistleblowers” to come forward without fear of retaliation. That is, journalists justify keeping their secrets by asserting that they are doing so to serve a greater public good. That is the same claim the government makes to justify keeping information confidential.

The Free Flow of Information Act, then, really is an effort to shift control of information from the government to journalists, enhancing the latter’s gatekeeper role at the expense of the former’s. Maybe this is a good idea, but to our mind it is less than axiomatic that journalists can be counted on to act in a more public-spirited way than government officials do.

And did you happen to see our column in the latest issue of Forbes on the media shield? Don’t forget the private property (IPR, for example) implications of a poorly crafted federal media shield bill.

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