Another opportunity to protect journalists from being forced to disclose their confidential sources has been missed in the Senate — and Florida's Mel Martinez bears a share of the blame. Martinez joined most other Senate Republicans on Wednesday to block consideration of a federal shield law for reporters, which has been awaiting a floor vote for months. Now that wait will continue into the fall and probably into 2009 for a new Congress.
Martinez and his fellow Republicans have their excuses. They are still trying to pressure the Democratic leadership to amend energy legislation to open more areas to drilling before everyone heads home for the August recess and an earful on high gasoline prices. But the shield law should not have become a casualty to partisan legislative maneuvering.
The Free Flow of Information Act easily passed through the Senate Judiciary Committee last fall, and a similar bill was overwhelmingly approved by the House months ago. While a similar privilege exists in every state except Wyoming, the lack of a shield law at the federal level puts confidential sources at risk. This protection is important to the public as well as journalists, because it is essential to holding government accountable and ensuring citizens are informed.
The Bush administration, of course, disagrees. The secretaries of Defense, Energy, Homeland Security and Treasury joined the attorney general in writing senators to oppose the bill. Attorney General Michael Mukasey keeps citing national security concerns and even said last week that "10 angels swearing on Bibles that that bill was harmless would not change the provisions in it.'' Fortunately, his days in office are numbered along with the president's -- and there are provisions in the legislation to make this a qualified privilege, not an absolute one.
If there is a silver lining in this unnecessary delay, it is that it creates more time to review efforts to appease the Bush administration that may have weakened the legislation. And although Bush had hinted he might veto a shield law, both John McCain and Barack Obama support it.
While Martinez shares responsibility for blocking consideration of the bill, a spokesman said the Florida Republican supports the concept. He should not squander another opportunity to translate those vague reassurances into a solid vote for a federal shield law.