IN ANCIENT societies, messengers who brought bad news were often killed by the people they were trying to warn. These days, the messengers are called journalists, and the Bush Administration too often tries to get them to reveal their confidential sources of information. If the reporters keep their promises and won't tell, they try to lock them up, as happened in the case of former New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in jail for refusing to reveal conversations she had with
I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, the felon who was then chief of staff for Vice President Dick Cheney.
Most politicians know, however, that jailing reporters for doing their jobs is a direct threat to freedom of the press - and that without press freedom, we can say good-bye to democracy.
That's why U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, a conservative Indiana Republican, co-sponsored a much-needed bill to protect a reporter's right to keep sources confidential in any case before the federal courts. This is "not about protecting reporters, it's about the public's right to know," he growled.
The bill isn't perfect; it does specify that reporters could still be compelled to disclose their sources if needed to prevent acts of terrorism or threats to national security. Given that we've had some presidents who thought disclosing their dry cleaning lists were matters of national security, that part needs clarification.
Otherwise, however, this bill would go a long way to reasserting our belief in the First Amendment. Not surprisingly, the Bush White House went ballistic, saying the bill would "frustrate" their ability to protect - you guessed it - national security. Once again, the President threatened a veto. But this time, that may be an empty threat. The vote in the House was 398-21, a veto-proof margin. It remains to be seen how quickly the U.S. Senate takes up the bill, but it can't be too soon.
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi may have put it best: "Freedom of the press is fundamental to our democracy and fundamental to our security."
President Bush himself may soon learn something new about the democratic experience: What it's like to have Congress override one of his vetoes.
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