President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee for Attorney General, Eric Holder, appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week and was asked briefly about a couple of issues related to the media. First, on the Fairness Doctrine:
Sen. Arlen Specter: Mr. Holder, there had been suggestions for a revival of the so-called Fairness Doctrine, and my question to you is do you think that as a matter of public policy, the so-called Fairness Doctrine ought to be reinstated?
Eric Holder: Senator, that’s a toughie I’ve not given an awful lot of thought to. If I could perhaps submit an answer to you in writing, I would have an opportunity to think about that. I wouldn’t want to commit myself to something and not give you the benefit of what is my best thinking on that.
Of course, Specter doesn’t specify who made these mysterious “suggestions for a revival” because the only ones to have done so are delusional Republicans. Holder’s answer, while vague, is evidence in itself that Democrats are not pursuing the matter. If they were, he would not have needed an opportunity to think about it. On the following question about a shield law for reporters, Holder was more specific.
Specter: Senator Leahy asked you about reporters’ shield. You said you’d be willing to consider it. We had a reporter held in jail for 85 days on the allegation that a source was not disclosed. At all times the special prosecutor in the case knew where the leak came from. I would appreciate it if you would be a little more definitive with your response. I don’t want to protract the discussion now.
Holder: Well, maybe, let me just say this, Senator. Maybe I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. I actually favor such a measure. All I was saying was that I’d want to work on what it actually looks like.
There’s a piece of legislation, I understand, there are going to be concerns, I can tell you I’m sure within the department. I want to work with you on that. But my position is that I think something can be crafted to deal with the issues that you have raised and the concerns I know I’m going to hear at the Justice Department. But I am in favor of the shield though.
Specter: Well, the critical question is a national security issue, right? If you would take a look at that and give me, us, your judgment, I’d appreciate it.
A national security issue? I can’t imagine to what he is referring that impacts national security. The underlying content of a specific story wherein the reporter’s shield is at issue could involve national security, but the shield itself is strictly a First Amendment concern.
The jailed reporter he referenced above was Judith Miller of the New York Times, who participated in the outing of former CIA operative, Valerie Plame. Holder took exactly the right position in declaring his support for the concept of a shield law, but retaining the ability to assess the legislation when the details are known. It would be irresponsible to make a blanket statement of support when the bill that eventually is drafted could contain language that would apply to someone like Miller who was not protecting a source so much as she was concealing an accomplice.
For bonus points, Holder spoke (pdf) at an event for the American Constitution Society in 2004, where he demonstrated his grasp of the media environment:
“With the mainstream media somewhat cowered by conservative critics, and the conservative media disseminating the news in anything but a fair and balanced manner, and you know what I mean there, the means to reach the greatest number of people is not easily accessible.”
Yes, I know what you mean. Good call, Mr. Holder.