Here we go again. Every time an administration is caught spying on the press, it professes to be "shocked, shocked." As shocked as Captain Renault in "Casablanca" on learning that Rick's Café Américain is actually a gambling joint. The captain's order to shut the place down is interrupted only briefly by an obliging waiter. ("Your winnings, sir.")
It's a scene cherished by every movie buff and connoisseur of irony. Just as every long-time Washington-watcher knew what would happen when Barack Obama and his attorney general were caught spying on the Washington press corps they'd once had eating out of their hand. Despite scandal after scandal -- from Benghazi to the way the IRS targeted conservative groups.
Benghazi? What difference at this point, as Hillary Clinton put it so memorably, does it make? As for the business with the IRS, that was all just the work of some "rogue agent" in Cincinnati. Even if the trail led to Washington, the resignation/retirement of top officials, and the customary Fifth Amendment plea by one of the ringleaders.
The sleepy watchdogs of the press managed to doze through all that without interruption. But then the administration's gumshoes were turned loose on the press, too. And finally, finally alarm bells went off.
Shades of Richard Nixon's notorious enemies' list! For it came to light that this administration had subpoenaed the records of 21 phone lines used by AP reporters and editors, and obtained a secret search warrant to pry into the emails of a well-respected correspondent for Fox News.
Uh oh. All hell broke loose. Well, sure, this was our ox that was being gored.
Even the most kneejerk members of a once adoring press corps awoke. The usually docile Al Hunt, a columnist for Bloomberg, discovered that "Obama is no better than Nixon." Katrina vanden Heuvel, she of the (way) left-of-center The Nation, decided that this administration "has had the worst record on press freedom." Why, even Chris Matthews of MSNBC, the libs' lapdog network, who used to feel a tremor down his pant leg when Barack Obama orated, awoke from his trance. The thrill was definitely gone.
Caught abusing the press and unable to deny it, the administration threw it a bone. A shield law designed to exempt the press from just the kind of abuse this administration had made its specialty was swiftly thrown together to protect journalists. Or at least those the administration was willing to recognize as such. You know, the certified, the professional, the official kind. In short, Our Sort.
As for the other sort -- bloggers, amateurs on Twitter, the kind of troublemakers Dan Rather used to dismiss as just guys sitting around in their pajamas in front of their computers when they were exposing him ... none of those need apply for protection. This shield law is being designed to shield only some.
It's hard to imagine the colonial pamphleteers who started the American Revolution -- and without a license from the Crown at that! -- qualifying as Protected Journalists under this law. What, that riff-raff?
The Hon. Dianne Feinstein, one of the sponsors of this selective shield for the press, explained that it would be limited to, you know, the right kind of people -- professionals. People with experience and a résumé and a real job. Not just anybody with an opinion. "I think journalism has a certain tradecraft," the senator explained. "It's a profession." Which is her first mistake. Because the Bill of Rights doesn't confine freedom of the press to the press. In a free country, anybody should be able to exercise it. Not just members of a "profession" as defined by the administration and its supporters in Congress.
So thanks but no thanks. I'm already covered by the best shield law ever conceived by the mind of man. It's called the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. ("Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press ...") Its simple, concise, magnificent language -- even now I can't read its words without my heart beating a little faster -- covers every American, not just the ones such a shield law would elevate to "covered journalist."
This administration's clumsy attempt to protect journalism only limits it. As grateful as I am for being treated like a privileged character under the terms of this proposal, I'd rather not be. For the thought occurs that any government able to license journalists can also un-license us. And that our rights, like those of all Americans, stem from a higher Authority than government. The same Authority that created all men equal and endowed us with certain rights like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. And even the pursuit of journalism.
Besides, I still remember a lesson I was first taught many years ago in a little basement Hebrew School in Shreveport, La., when a bunch of unruly little boys was introduced to a few pages of Talmud by Rabbi Leo Brener, who put up with a lot. The lesson that day was contained in a little tractate called "Ethics of the Fathers," and while it was intended for rabbis and other interpreters of the Law, I've found it a most useful guide for a mere inky wretch. It consists of three injunctions, in ascending order:
Love creative work.
Do not seek dominance over others.
And avoid intimacy with the ruling authorities.