The three major candidates for president now agree that Congress should pass a law allowing reporters to protect their confidential sources. Unfortunately, the current occupant of the White House still resists such legislation, which is why the Senate needs to follow the House in approving the Free Flow of Information Act by a veto-proof margin.
That prospect was enhanced last month when Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) told newspaper editors that, like Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), he supports a shield law. McCain said such a law "is, frankly, a license to do harm, perhaps serious harm. But it's also a license to do good, to disclose injustice and unlawfulness and inequities and to encourage their swift correction."
It is the public, not the news media, that ultimately benefits most from the sort of aggressive journalism that sometimes requires pledges of confidentiality. That's why both the House and Senate versions of the bill empower judges to determine if "the public interest in compelling disclosure of the information or document involved outweighs the public interest in gathering or disseminating news or information."
In addition to that general balancing test, the legislation allows judges to order reporters to name sources if the identities are needed to prevent significant harm to national security. Even so, Atty. Gen. Michael B. Mukasey and Director of National Intelligence J. Michael McConnell object to the legislation on the grounds (where have we heard this before?) that it allows judges to intrude in matters of national security.