Being a member of the Fourth Estate since the Reagan administration, I've received my share of feedback from readers -- both good and bad.

I won't regale you with every adventure that comes with the territory, but I've been threatened by Little League parents (both mothers and fathers), ordered on more than one occasion to perform what I considered to be impossible physical tasks, and once had to fend off an attack at an out-of-control boxing match by smashing a portable typewriter off the head of the soon-to-be hospitalized assailant.

On the flip side I've also received a few complimentary letters and, if nothing else, felt that I made a small difference in what I did.

But unlike some in the profession, I've never been asked to turn over my notes for legal reasons. Nor have I ever been subpoenaed by a government agency in the midst of an investigation that coincided with a story I had been working on.

Recently, and nearly unnoticed amidst the regular blare of corporate headlines in the business sections of the nation's dailies and wire services, a set of guidelines was released by the Securities and Exchange Commission regarding the regulator issuing subpoenas to journalists.

The guidelines come roughly two months after the agency's enforcement division was criticized by SEC chair Christopher Cox for having subpoenaed two reporters from Dow Jones in connection with an investigation without first seeking his approval.

The policy states that reporters will only be subpoenaed after all options for obtaining information have been "exhausted," and top agency officials have signed off on the order, which received unanimous approval from the SEC's five commissioners.

The statement contained the perfunctory boilerplate phrases one would expect from a Capitol Hill communication, such as highlighting the importance of the freedom of the press and how "diligent reporting is an essential means of bringing securities law violations to light and ultimately helps to deter illegal conduct."

I'm not sure either the SEC or the Justice Department -- on whose procedures the new reporter/subpoena policy is based -- would be so quick to laud diligent reporting, especially if some reporter had more information on a pending case than their investigators.

But that's fodder for a future column.

Cox also stated that subpoenas to journalists, as opposed to those issued to wrongdoers in the executive suite, have been, and would remain, "very rare."

Now I realize that conducting a federal securities inquiry and investigative reporting can, at times, mix as easily as oil and water.

But it's refreshing to see an agency make an effort to launch a much-needed policy as opposed to Washington's long-running tradition of stonewalling or endless layers of bureaucracy.

And it sounds better than getting cold-cocked with a typewriter.

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