October 19, 2005 12:00 PM PDT

Senators: Bloggers may not be true journalists

WASHINGTON--Politicians indicated on Wednesday that a proposed law offering journalists special privileges might not be extended to Web loggers.

"The relative anonymity afforded to bloggers, coupled with a lack of accountability, as they are not your typical brick-and-mortar reporters who answer to an editor or publisher, also has the risk of creating a certain irresponsibility when it comes to accurately reporting information," Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, said in a statement prepared for a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on reporters' privilege legislation.

The hearing came as politicians are weighing the Free Flow of Information Act. The current wording of the measure, proposed in identical form in the U.S. House of Representatives, offers protection of confidential sources for anyone who "publishes a newspaper, book, magazine, or other periodical in print or electronic word." The District of Columbia and every state except Wyoming already have some form of protection on their books.

Wednesday's hearing largely centered on broader tensions that remain between the Justice Department, which opposes the measure on the grounds that it would inhibit its investigative powers, and representatives from the news media, who contended that protection of confidential sources is essential for doing their work. New York Times reporter Judith Miller, who spent 85 days in an Alexandria, Va., jail this summer because she refused to give up the name of a confidential source, participated on a panel clamoring for federal action.

"I'm here because I hope you will agree that an uncoerced, uncoercable press, though at times irritating, is vital to the perpetuation of the freedom and democracy we so often take for granted," she said.

Only a fraction of the questioning from senators hinged on whom should be covered by shield laws.

Largely echoing remarks he made during the first hearing on the topic, Cornyn voiced hesitance over whether the proposed shield law should apply to the "Internet blogger who has a cell phone with a camera, and maybe a laptop computer, and can publish with equal ease as a journalist."

Cornell University law professor Steven Clymer, who spoke on a panel that expressed reservations about the bill, told Cornyn that he thought the current wording of the bill would cover bloggers. Clymer indicated that he viewed this as a "dangerously broad" move that would undermine the idea of granting privileges at all.

Skepticism about treating bloggers as professional journalists is not new. Sen. Richard Lugar, the Indiana Republican who is the primary sponsor of the shield law bill, told a journalism conference last week that bloggers should "probably not" be considered real journalists. (In the realm of election law, however, lawmakers have called for blanket exemptions for Internet publishers.)

It's clear that as lawmakers pursue the measure, debate over the definition of "journalist" will weigh heavily on the process.

Cornyn on Wednesday called for "serious discussion of what constitutes the term 'reporter.'" Lack of agreement on that definition has stalled federal efforts at shield law legislation for years, said Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, in a statement.

"With bloggers now participating fully in the 24-hour news cycle," he said, "we might face similar challenges in defining terms today."

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