Shielding the public's right to know

News leaks played a central role in the controversy surrounding a Bush-era vice-presidential aid, whose trial is depicted here.

New Jersey voters may have faith that governor-elect Christopher J. Christie can deliver on his campaign pledge to root out corruption, but Christie's job will be that much easier if the state's press corps continues to fulfill its watchdog role.

So a congressional measure primed for Senate consideration - one that's of greatest interest to journalists - could wind up helping Christie and other reform-minded leaders.

Under a compromise worked out with the Obama administration, journalists and their confidential sources finally could see new federal protections needed to assure that the press can keep the public informed about the workings of government, business, and civic affairs.

Most states have such shield laws, including strong ones in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. But without a national shield law, federal lawsuits over news leaks have undermined the state statutes and threaten to chill newsgathering efforts critical to a free society.

A chief cosponsor of the federal measure, Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.), contends that if investigative journalists "can't protect sources, there is a lot of public corruption and private malfeasance that will go undetected and unpunished."

Indeed, it's only due to the assurances of confidentiality that many whistle-blowers and other news sources are willing to reveal what they know.

While the House approved a shield law version in March, Senate action came to a halt over the summer while President Obama considered objections from intelligence agencies agents and prosecutors. Their chief concern was that the courts be able to order reporters to disclose sources in cases involving national-security concerns.

Even before the compromise announced last week, Specter's bill provided a reasonable exception for confidentiality when necessary to deter a terrorist attack or other serious crime. That balanced citizens' right to know with government's duty to protect them from harm.

To gain White House approval, though, the Senate measure puts an even greater legal burden on journalists and news organizations to shield information sought by prosectors in criminal cases. By forcing journalists to prove to a judge that there's a "clear and convincing" public interest in the free flow of information, the proposed shield law clearly tilts in favor of authorities and government secrecy.

While that could make it difficult to avoid disclosing sources in some cases, the Senate proposal at least gives reporters and editors a fighting chance to win the case for confidentiality before an impartial judge. So major news organizations are right to support this compromise, as perhaps the best that can be achieved.

The compromise shield law bill should be approved by the full Senate and sent to the president - to the cheers of corruption-fighters everywhere.