Editorials, Opinion

PRESS Act: What it means for journalists & America

There must have been a strange and rare alignment of stars on Jan. 18, because on that day, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Protect Reporters from Exploitative State Spying (PRESS) Act with bipartisan support.

The PRESS Act protects journalists from being forced to name their sources in federal court or disclose “any records, contents of a communication, documents, or information obtained or created by journalists in the course of their work” that could otherwise identify the source; and would stop the federal government from spying on journalists through their technology providers, specifically by preventing phone and internet companies from “being compelled to provide testimony or any document consisting of a record, information, or other communication that is stored by the third party on behalf of a journalist.”

The bill itself is a welcome relief to journalists, but it’s how the bill came to be that should provide everyone with hope.

This bill comes after nearly eight years now of politicians and partisans denigrating the news media: calling coverage they don’t like “fake news,” undermining public trust in media and fostering an overall animosity and disrespect that has made work increasingly dangerous for reporters.

Protecting sources is the one proverbial hill that most journalists will die on; there are few things as sacred as the bond of trust between a reporter and their source, especially one that has been granted anonymity for their own protection. It takes immense bravery to speak to a reporter, especially about something that others would prefer to keep quiet. In the most extreme cases, journalists and editors make the promise of anonymity with the knowledge that, if they are summoned to court, they may have to fall on the metaphorical sword — accepting astronomical fines or even jail time.

For such a deeply divided chamber to show this kind of support for reporters is surprising, but in the best way possible. Hopefully, this will help restore some public trust in journalism. 

But the part that offers the most hope for the future is how truly partisan this effort was. The PRESS Act had 20 cosponsors: 10 Republicans and 10 Democrats. The Senate equivalent has four sponsors: two from each party.

The bill passed in a unanimous voice vote, and moves to the Senate, where it will hopefully get the same reception.

This kind of bipartisan support is nearly unheard of — but it shows that, despite everything that points to the contrary, there are some things our elected officials can agree upon. And if our elected representatives can find common ground, then the rest of us most certainly can.