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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, August 13, 2017 1:00 am


Hoosiers play unaccustomed role in press crackdown

As Jeff Sessions declared war on leakers in a news conference last week, Hoosiers saw a familiar face in the briefing room. Dan Coats, the former Indiana senator and current director of national intelligence, had Sessions' back as the U.S. attorney general warned that his department's crackdown could include targeting journalists who publish anonymous revelations from governmentwhistleblowers.

It's difficult to imagine the constitutionally minded Coats advocating such a stringent course as a senator. Now, he serves a president who has labeled journalists “enemies of the people.”

Vice President Mike Pence's silent complicity has been even more jarring. Before Donald Trump tapped him as his running mate, Pence was generally known as a strong advocate for the free press.

As a congressman, Pence was an eloquent leader of the effort to protect journalists from just the sort of information-chilling inquiries Sessions and Coats seem to be advocating.

Steve Key, now executive director of the Hoosier State Press Association, remembers a visit he and his predecessor, David Stamps, made to Washington, D.C., in the mid-2000s. When they called on then-U.S. Rep. Pence, Key said, the congressman spoke passionately about a bill he intended to introduce that would create a federal shield law similar to the Indiana law that allows reporters to protect confidential sources.

With Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher of Virginia and Indiana Sen. RichardLugar as co-sponsors, Pence introduced the Free Flow of Information Ac. It was a move that showed political independence and guts; President George W. Bush's administration adamantly opposed the bill.

But as Pence told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “Compelling reporters to testify, and in particular compelling reporters to reveal the identity of their confidential sources, intrudes on the news-gathering process and hurts the public interest.

“Without the assurance of confidentiality, many whistleblowers will simply refuse to come forward, and reporters will be unable to provide the American public with information they need to make decisions as an informed electorate. ... As a conservative who believes in limited government, I believe that the only check on government power in real time is a free and independent press.”

The Free Flow of Information Act failed to pass, though Pence introduced versions of it repeatedly – the last time in 2011, the year before he was elected governor of Indiana.

Writing last week about the vice president's longtime championship of the shield law cause, CQ Roll Call noted that “Mike Pence's office has not responded to queries first made in February as to whether the now-vice president still supported his proposal.”

Last weekend, Pence vehemently denounced a New York Times article that reported on D.C. speculation about his presidential aspirations, though that may have been more about reassuring Trump of his loyalty than about the specifics of the article, which no one seemed to challenge.

But wise leaders draw a distinction between particular media coverage that might displease them and the principles of freedom of information that have underlain our democracy for 21/2 centuries.

As one of those leaders once said, “Without the free flow of information from sources to reporters, the public is ill-equipped to make informed decisions.”

That leader, of course, was Pence, in a statement he released six years ago.