What’s My Line?

I  am old enough to remember a TV game show called “What’s My Line.” The idea of the show was that “mystery guests” would come on and answer questions posed by “celebrities”  (this is in quotes because the people who qualified as “celebrities” back then were pretty lame) and the celebrity panel would try to guess what the guest did for a living. Here’s a clip.  

The old show is on my mind as the Senate apparently struggles with defining the term “journalist. ” The need for a definition arises because the Senate is debating whether to enact a federal “shield law.” A shield law allows a journalist to refuse to reveal the source of information. Forty nine states have some form of a shield law – either via case law or statute – there is no federal law that provides any such thing.  The U.S. Supreme Court, in its 1971 decision in Branzburg v. Hayes, held that the First Amendment provides no such protection,  and Congress has never enacted any legislation to provide the protection via statute. 

And now Congress is feeling like Goldilocks as it looks for some language that is “just right.” If the definition is too broad, some Senators fear it protects everyone. The fear there is that government employees who want to leak sensitive information could have a friend set up a blog solely to leak the information and then hide behind the overly broad shield. 

Of course, if the definition is too narrow – for example, it protects only people who get paid for their efforts – then many legitimate bloggers will be left in the cold. 

One solution may be to define a different word. The thought is not to define “journalist”  but rather “the act of journalism.”  Don’t focus on the who, but rather the what. This approach would ask whether the person intended to disseminate information to the public, and whether that intent existed at the inception of the newsgathering process.  This definition avoids creating a privileged class, because anyone could qualify. But it probably leaves out the person who is simply acting as stooge for a leaker. 

It’s an interesting debate, even if it never becomes a TV game show.