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Justice Department takes important step toward protecting journalists

“All the President’s Men” is one of the best movies of the 1970s, and its most memorable scenes have Robert Redford as Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward meeting up with Jason Robards as “Deep Throat” in a shadowy parking garage. During their exchanges, “Deep Throat” offers crucial hints about the Watergate cover-up, and how it reached into the highest levels of the administration of Richard Nixon.

It was revealed more than 30 years after Watergate destroyed Nixon’s presidency that “Deep Throat” was Mark Felt, who had been associate director of the FBI at the time of the Watergate break-in. Felt is perhaps the most famous and most important of government informants, but there have been scores of other individuals working in Washington, D.C., in the decades since that have passed along vital information to reporters that their bosses wanted to keep under wraps. The motives of these confidential sources have undoubtedly been mixed – some have probably wanted to burnish their own reputations or had axes to grind, while others might have genuinely wanted to point out missteps and misdeeds. Nevertheless, they have performed an essential service in illuminating the inner workings of our government.

The job of reporters and the sources they cultivate just got a little bit easier this week when U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announced that the Justice Department would no longer try to get their hands on reporters’ notes, have them testify in court or try to uncover who they communicated with by trying to get ahold of their phone or email records. The change in policy comes after revelations that the Justice Department went after the records of journalists from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN to try to find leakers late last year.

The new policy protects journalists while they are engaged in newsgathering activities, while sensibly carving out exceptions if they are involved in criminal activity unrelated to their jobs, or are working at the behest of another government or a terrorist group.

Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee on Freedom of the Press, applauded the revised policy, saying, “The attorney general has taken a necessary and momentous step to protect press freedom at a critical time.” Those sentiments were echoed by New York Times publisher A.G. Sulzberger, who said the policy “represents a significant step forward in the protection of press freedom.”

The bad news, though, is that these rules are essentially written in sand and can be quickly reversed by any administration that follows President Biden’s. What is needed is a federal shield law that would protect reporters from having to testify or divulge information about their sources.

We hope Congress feels the same way.

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