Amidst the heavily hyped negotiations between Murdoch's minions and the Bancroft family who currently own the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times has apparently decided to mount their own investigation in an effort to examine what should be expected from the possible merger. While there is no clear indication what spin the Times will put on the story, it seems unlikely that the paper will conclude that Rupert Murdoch is the patron saint of news media. The New York times is one of the last major independent media outlets (along with the Wall Street Journal - for now), and it's altogether possible that News Corp. may eventually set it's sites on the Times, so I think it is safe to anticipate that this article won't be a puff piece.
So why are these shield laws important, and why should journalists be afforded this protection in the first place?
One of the basic defining principles of a democracy is a free press. If information is being stymied by the government, or the political conditions make it impossible for people to engage with the press then the public is robbed of all the facts they need to make an informed decision. Much of the work that journalists due relies on a trust relationship between their contacts, and the material uncovered through the investigative process is not dissimilar from that of detectives. Unless there are protections established than journalists can easily be subpoenaed and forced to do the work of law enforcement thus muddying their position as the Fourth Estate and the trust they have worked so hard to establish.