By: Debra Gersh Hernandez
Senator’s proposal to require journalists to disclose their
outside sources of income likely to get Congressional hearings;
penalties for noncompliance would include loss of credentials
A PROPOSAL BY Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) requiring journalists to disclose their sources of outside income in order to get Senate press credentials has taken another step forward.
Just before the Senate recessed for its August break, Byrd introduced a resolution that likely will lead to hearings on the issue when Congress returns.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Rules & Administration Committee, which has authority over the issue, has indicated he is willing to hold those hearings.
The latest action follows a sense-of-the-Senate resolution passed a few weeks ago (E&P, Aug. 12, P. 9).
The latest resolution states that no later than May 15 of each year, accredited members must file a report for the previous year. In that report, journalists must identify their primary employer, as well as the sources, and amounts from each source, of any outside income. The reports, filed with the Secretary of the Senate, would be open for public inspection.
Reportable outside sources of income would not include interest or dividends from stocks, bonds, savings accounts or other forms of passive investment, or income from inheritances or rental properties.
Penalty for noncompliance would be loss of accreditation “or other such penalties” as the gallery “deems appropriate.” The rule would apply to all the galleries ? newspapers, radio/television, periodicals, and photographers.
“I know that this is a controversial and somewhat delicate matter,” Byrd said in introducing the resolution. “I am aware of the concerns that the Fourth Estate has with requiring its members to reveal such information.
“Some members of the media will certainly object to any outside attempt to encourage even a limited code of ethical standards. I believe that those objections are misguided,” he said.
“This resolution is not intended to be a punitive or vindictive exercise designed to punish, inconvenience or embarrass reporters,” Byrd continued.
“When poll after poll records alarming losses of public faith in our traditional institutions, I simply believe that responsible efforts must be made to address that erosion of public trust,” he said.
The senator also cited the press’ “awesome responsibility in our form of government ? one that far outweighs any slight inconvenience like filing a list of one’s speaking fees.
“Regrettably, the activities of some members of the press have called into question the ability of the media to be consistently fair and unbiased . . . . It is these perceptions that have to be addressed,” he said.
Byrd noted that his “hope all along has been that journalists would recognize the need to address this problem themselves. As of now, I see little evidence that this will happen.”
Among those opposed to the measure is the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, which called the measure “particularly galling” in a commentary for the summer issue of News Media & the Law.
The RCFP commentary pointed out that “regardless of whether Sen. Byrd’s proposal stems from envy, irritation or a touching desire to help the news media realize what he called their ‘full responsibility’ to their readers and viewers, it is wrong-headed, inappropriate and unconstitutional.”
RCFP executive director Jane E. Kirtley told E&P the proposal “reads like something that would be produced by a country that has no First Amendment and no tradition of an independent press.
“This kind of sanctimonious moralizing to justify censorship is classic coming from the countries whose [press] conditions we deplore,” she added. “It is unconscionable for someone of Sen. Byrd’s standing to pretend this proposal does not pose a significant threat to press freedom in the United States.”
Kirtley and Radio-Television News Directors Association president David Bartlett co-signed a letter to Rules and Administration Committee Chairman Stevens opposing the resolution and urging no further action. Copies of the letter also were sent to committee members.
“Highly publicized reports of some journalists receiving speaking fees from groups that arguably could be the subjects of later reporting prove that government action is not necessary to call journalists’ behavior into public question,” the letter said. “Journalistic ethics always have been hotly debated in our society, and the debate and the outcome need no official guidance from the Congress.”
?(This kind of sanctimonious moralizing to justify censorship is classic coming from the countries whose [press] conditions we deplore. It is unconscionable for someone of Sen. Byrd’s standing to pretend this proposal does notpose a significant threat to press freedom in the United States.” [Caption]
?(-Jane Kirtley, executive director, Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press) [Photo & Caption]