THE BLOG
01/01/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

"Nothing But the Truth" About the Federal Shield Law

My film Nothing but the Truth, a thriller about how far a journalist will go to protect a source, is going to open for one week in New York and Los Angeles on December 19th for what the inside-baseball people call a "qualifying run." It premiered back in September at the Toronto Film festival. Everybody connected with it was very happy with the reviews and especially the praise that was lavished upon the actors -- Kate Beckinsale, Alan Alda, Matt Dillon, and Vera Farmiga in particular.

What I'd like to do is something a bit unusual. I want to bring attention to a review that was a "mixed-negative." It appeared at a site called Cinemablend and was written by a critic I was not familiar with but who wrote in a crisp and efficient style that I liked. I want to discuss what she wrote because of a broader point that needs to be made about how this country feels about journalists and their rights to protect their sources.

In the column, the critic singled out the quality of the acting and a couple of other nice things before she went on to discuss a very specific scene. It was here that the review started to get a bit nasty: "[That scene is] the point where the movie goes from mildly topical to completely off the liberal rails."

"Off the liberal rails."

Okay. Well, that comment is coming from somebody who may or may not be a conservative, I don't know, but certainly it is not somebody who understands where either Republicans or Democrats stand on the issue of journalistic privilege when it comes to protecting sources.

Let's be clear.

The fight to get a shield law barring the government from being able to jail journalists is itself a non-partisan battle. Indeed, it so happens that the prosecutor in this film, played by Dillon, is a Democrat.

The truth is that right now Republicans and Democrats are banding together to get a shield law passed in the Senate. It has already made its way through the House -- where 176 Republicans voted for it. That's right: Republicans

The Senate Judiciary committee has approved it by a non-partisan vote of 15-3.

The two top senators leading the charge are Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Richard Lugar of Indiana. Both Republicans.

Even Ted Olson, the former solicitor general for the Bush administration is on the side of the shield law. Here is what he said testifying about two San Francisco Chronicle journalists who were being threatened with jail time for refusing to name their sources in the BALCO scandal.

One of the most vital functions of our free and independent press is to function as a watchdog, working to uncover stories that would otherwise go untold. Journalists in pursuit of such stories often must obtain information from individuals who, for fear of retribution or retaliation, are unwilling to be publicly identified.

Olson is exactly right.

An argument has been made that a shield law would serve to harm our national security.

Olson, the Republican, has something to say abut that as well:

But we do not recoil from judicial oversight when it comes to attorney-client or physician-patient privilege, or search warrants or FISA warrants. And there is no reason we should reject it when it comes to journalist-source communications.

Now, do you know who is opposed to the Federal Shield Law?

Whomever is in power. That's who.

Yes, even, probably, the Obama administration.

Under Obama, it is more likely than not that stories that are critical of the administration will come from sources that tend to the conservative. They are the people who will need protection if there's a shield law.

The articles about Clinton that plagued his administration -- Travelgate, Whitewater, and so on -- came from critics of the administration that were generally not "liberal." You can be damn sure that those "leakers" or "whistle-blowers" wanted protection.

I suppose when any movie dealing with politics is released there is a knee jerk assumption that it is propelled by a liberal agenda. That may be true most of the time, but not with Nothing but the Truth.

The film opens in New York and Los Angeles on December 19th.