Aren't We Special?

Beware journalists asking government for rights

I get really nervous when journalists start getting in bed with the government.

Corporate media, professional journalism organizations, and journalism schools seem determined to carve out special rights from the government in the practice of the profession.

Radio and television gave up their First Amendment rights in return for lucrative government licensed monopolies decades ago. The print media has been operating just fine under the First Amendment. But the journalism profession seems to be deluded in thinking the First Amendment only applies to them. The First Amendment is a right of the people, and any action that separates "professional" journalism from the rights of the people puts journalism in bed with the government and separate from the people. This is not only wrong-headed, but extremely dangerous.

Let us always be clear that the Sunshine Law violations of Knox County Commission last year were violations against all the citizens of Knox County, not just the press. When we press for entrance to secret budget hearings of the Legislature, it shouldn't be about just letting reporters in. They should be where any citizens can view them.

At the recent Associated Press convention, presidential candidates showed up to kiss the collective butts of America's newspaper managers. They promised to enact a federal shield law. This is the Holy Grail of corporate newspaper financial officers everywhere, who really dislike spending money defending the First Amendment.

How will the government know to whom it will grant this federal shield? It will be necessary for the federal government to define "journalists." It is, in effect, a federal license to practice the First Amendment. Won't it be a comfort when your license to practice journalism is granted by the likes of John Ashcroft or Alberto Gonzales?

We can go anywhere and cover what we please because we are American citizens. Every citizen has always had freedom of the press—the freedom to print a pamphlet like Tom Paine, start a Kiplinger newsletter, or write a book like Upton Sinclair. The Internet has made it even easier to practice citizen journalism.

When the government starts to decide who is qualified to be a journalist, where does that leave bloggers? Freelance writers? Documentary filmmakers? People writing books based on investigative journalism? Where does it leave the average American who wants to speak out about their government? Can the government decide Chris Cillizza (Washington Post blogger) is a journalist but that Glenn Reynolds (Instapundit) is not?

There is a false argument raging on the Internet about whether bloggers are "journalists" and whether they should be accorded the same rights and privileges. This is idiocy. The rights and privileges belong to every American citizen, whether they work for a newspaper or whether they even have a blog. For it to be any other way the government would have to be able to define what constitutes journalism. Any takers?

I am an extremist on this issue. I find it appalling that citizens have to turn out their pockets and subject themselves to a search to enter public buildings. Often, security people vet journalists and give them entrance ID's—just like the lobbyists, the bureaucrats or the office holders. Instead of taking the ID, the journalists should be asking why lobbyists have a "get in free" card every day while average citizens "lobbying" have to be searched. Are you one of "us" or one of "them?" There are 500 lobbyists in Nashville. The assumption is made every day that they aren't a security risk—that they don't have a pocket knife or a can of mace. There is an assumption no legislator is "packing" a firearm, a dangerous assumption in Tennessee. But the citizens are suspects until proven innocent.

We don't need a shield law. We don't need government ID cards. We cannot allow the government to ever tell us who can exercise their First Amendment rights.

Take your ID card and your shield law and stick them where the sun don't shine. m