President Obama may be engaging in political damage control in proposing that Congress resurrect legislation to protect the confidentiality of journalists' sources. But his call for action on a federal shield law is welcome even if it is inspired by a desire to deflect criticism of the Justice Department's seizure of the phone records of The Associated Press.
Although described as a "reporter's privilege," protection for confidential news sources actually benefits the public by making it easier for journalists to obtain information about wrongdoing in government and elsewhere. That's why most states provide some protection for journalists who have promised confidentiality to their sources. In addition, long-standing Justice Department regulations require it to seek information from other sources before going after information that might expose a journalist's confidential sources.
But a federal shield statute is still necessary, as the Justice Department's acquisition of the AP's phone records demonstrates. In a letter to the AP, Deputy Attorney General James Cole insisted that the Justice Department followed its regulations. But the current arrangement is essentially an honor system in which the government decides whether it is complying.