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Published: Monday, 11/16/2009

Hoist the shield

PREPARE to strike one item from the list of disappointments that President Obama has dealt to those who expected better from a progressive administration - a federal shield law for news reporters.

A few weeks ago, the administration signaled to lawmakers that it had problems with a media shield law - S. 448, the Free Flow of Information Act - that would protect reporters from going to jail to protect their sources.

This was a setback for anyone who believes uninhibited news gathering is essential to the workings of democracy. Indeed, it is a strange sort of freedom of the press that treats reporters like criminals because they won't betray sources who are often indispensable to the task of learning the hidden truth of stories. Fortunately, the administration has had a change of heart.

Thanks to an agreement worked out between the administration, leading Democrats, and various media organizations, most of the objectionable portions have been eliminated. The result is a compromise that balances the concerns of the government with the needs of the news business.

The public has nothing to fear that the workings of justice or national security would be harmed by the shield law. A reporter couldn't invoke the law, for example, when terrorism threatens mayhem.

In criminal cases, compelled disclosure of information would be allowed only when all reasonable alternatives had been exhausted and the testimony or document sought was ruled essential.

As the president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Marty Kaiser, said: "While not perfect, this is a huge stride forward from the administration's prior position and provides statutory protection that far exceeds that which is currently available to a reporter ..."

Congress should pass it.

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