Kentucky has a law protecting reporters from being compelled by state courts to disclose confidential sources. Almost every state does. But there is no federal counterpart.
For a time media organizations argued in courts at the federal level that the same privilege to protect sources is in embedded in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The U.S. Supreme Court rejected that idea in 2014 when it denied an appeal by New York Times reporter James Risen.
A federal court had ordered Risen to disclose his source after Risen published leaked classified information concerning a CIA effort to sabotage Iran's nuclear program. The order came in connection with the ultimately successful prosecution of former CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling under the Espionage Act.
The ruling led such media organizations as the Newspaper Association of America and the Society of Professional Journalists to push for a federal shield law providing the same protection in federal courts that reporters currently have by statute in 49 states. Such a measure passed the House twice, with bipartisan support, and in 2014 made it out of a committee in the Senate in 2014.
But the law never passed. We doubt that it ever will. The reason is media excess.
A case in point is this week's release by liberal news outlet MSNBC of a tax return stolen from President Donald Trump.
Regular readers know we're not much on carrying Trump's water. As presidents go, he will never be our favorite. But this disclosure by MSNBC is not merely unethical; it is criminal.
It is no secret that much of the media has gone loony over the election of Donald Trump. All pretense of dispassionate reporting vanished long ago.
We acknowledge that when one chooses public life, particularly the pinnacle as leader of the free world, much privacy is sacrificed. Still, even the president remains a citizen, and as such he or she continues to have basic rights and protections.
Many in the media are in a tizzy over the fact that Trump refused to release his tax returns during his campaign and afterward. That is not the norm, but there also is no legal requirement that he do so. Trump's refusal was publicized ad nauseum during the campaign, and his voters found it irrelevant. They elected him.
That's not good enough for some journalists, however. Trump should release his returns because they say so. And if he won't do it, they're fine turning to criminals to help them.
Indeed MSNBC host Rachel Maddow acknowledged that unauthorized publication of someone's federal tax return is a federal offense. But she said MSNBC was simply -- as the Associated Press put it -- "exercising its First Amendment right to publish information in the public interest."
That is insane. The First Amendment places no journalist above the law. That's what the Risen case was all about. Maddow may discover this the hard way.
But in the larger picture, stunts like this are the reason media appeals for greater First Amendment protections have little traction in Congress or among the public. With freedom comes responsibility. It doesn't help the cause when journalists like those at MSNBC demonstrate they are deficient in the latter.
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