WASHINGTON -- A Senate panel took a step forward on legislation to protect reporters and the news media from revealing their sources. But lawmakers put off until September a broader debate over whether Congress defines who is a journalist.
The Judiciary Committee agreed Thursday to legislation sponsored by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., a key supporter of a federal media shield law. The measure would codify many of the regulations proposed earlier this month by Attorney General Eric Holder. The panel approved it on a voice vote.
The renewed push for a media shield law comes after the disclosure earlier this year that the Justice Department had secretly subpoenaed almost two months of telephone records for 21 phone lines used by reporters and editors for The Associated Press and secretly used a warrant to obtain some emails of a Fox News journalist. The AP received no advance warning.
"We need a strong media shield bill now more than ever," Schumer said. "This is an important step forward that strengthens this bipartisan bill and should give it even more momentum to clear the committee and the Senate by the end of the year."
The bill would protect reporters and news media organizations from revealing the identities of confidential sources, but it does not grant an absolute privilege for journalists.
The lack of objection to taking up Schumer's 21-page bill signaled broad support, but it's also clear there will be a number of proposed changes to the language he has crafted with a bipartisan group of senators that includes Sens. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Limited amount of time before Congress' August recess forced lawmakers to postpone further action on the measure until after the break.
One issue is the definition of reporter in the aftermath of WikiLeaks, the website that exposed U.S. classified information leaked by Army Pfc. Bradley Manning.
The bill's definition covers four pages and defines the individual as a person "with the primary intent to investigate events and procure material in order to disseminate to the public news or information concerning local, national or international events or other matters of public interest," collects the information by conducting interviews and directly observing events, and has the intent of gathering news.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., proposed an amendment to narrow the definition of what a journalist is.
Feinstein said she was introducing her amendment because, "this bill is described as a reporter shield law – I believe it should be applied to real reporters." She said she was concerned "that the current version of the bill would grant a special privilege to people who aren't really reporters at all, who have no professional qualifications."
Feinstein's amendment, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., "defines a journalist as a salaried agent" of a media entity, such as a newspaper, broadcast news station, news web site or another type of news service distributed digitally. She said there was also language, including a "look back" option to protect legitimate reporters not tied to a specific news organization.
Schumer said he thought his legislation had a tight enough definition of who would be protected by the law.
"The bottom line is the world has changed, and we're very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn't be protected," Schumer said. "Wikileaks and all those others are not protected."
Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said senators on the committee had proposed a number of amendments to the bill and that in order to give them all a fair hearing, he wanted to wait until after Congress' August recess to go further.
He also asked senators to consider consolidating some proposed changes before they returned to work.
Schumer's measure would incorporate many of the changes proposed by Attorney General Eric Holder in July. Criticism of the collection of the material without any notice to the news organizations prompted President Barack Obama to order Holder to review the department's policy.
Holder's revised guidelines called for the government to give advance notice to the news media about subpoena requests for reporters' phone records unless the attorney general determines such notice would pose a clear and substantial threat to the investigation. Search warrants for a reporter's email would only apply when the individual is the focus of a criminal investigation for conduct not connected to ordinary newsgathering.
The Schumer bill makes clear that before the government asks a news organization to divulge sources, it first must go to a judge, who would supervise any subpoenas or court orders for information. Such orders would be limited, if possible, "in purpose, subject matter and period of time covered so as to avoid compelling disclosure of peripheral, nonessential or speculative information."
Holder's revised guidelines do not call for a judge to be involved before the government asks a news organization to divulge sources. However, the guidelines call for a new standing News Media Review Committee to advise the attorney general on such requests.
Reporters must be notified within 45 days of a request, a period that could be extended another 45 days but no more.
In the AP story that triggered one of the leak probes, the news organization reported that U.S. intelligence had learned that al-Qaida's Yemen branch hoped to launch a spectacular attack using a new, nearly undetectable bomb aboard a U.S.-bound airliner around the anniversary of Osama bin Laden's death.
In the Fox News story, reporter James Rosen reported that U.S. intelligence officials had warned Obama and senior U.S. officials that North Korea would respond to a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning nuclear tests with another nuclear test.
Associated Press writer Donna Cassata contributed to this report.
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