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

© 2008 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 5

big_vol writes:

Kinda like the Pentagon "grooming" military TV analysts?

orwell46 writes:

You are so right. Say it louder and louder.

Newspapers (to use the generic idea) have never been perfect, but the closer they are to blue-collar down-to-earth people, the better they are. The closer reporters are to bow-tied power suckups, the worse they are. For an example: In my town--look at the Boston Globe. A huge scandal involving $15 billion of construction for "the Big Dig" went unnoticed by the Boston Globe over 15-year period. The Globe in the 1990s was rich, and they could have assigned two fulltime beat reporters to the damned project if they chose to. Instead, the blue-blazer-wearing reporters had white wine with the politicians...felt important...and as a result, skeptical digging coverage of this huge project...just didn't...kind of...just didn't happen. (Yes, the graft-filled project ate 15,000 millions of dollars and transformed the entire look of Boston, but the Globe snoozed through it.)

Every reporter wants to rise socially; and they are easily bought out by the promise of hobnobbing with their betters. When the government is licensing reporters, a new branch of tyranny will have sprung up on our soil Our very eyes and ears will have sold out.

Every American is a journalist or reporter--period. As soon as we allow the government of any given year to start defining the Bill of Rights as applying only to "professionals" we are f***ed. This year's government officials may be semi-innocuous, but that's no reason to trust that five years from now a Robert Mugabe or Huey Long or Karl Rove or Anton Rezko or Eliot Spitzer (pick your self-aggrandizing jerk)...will not be using the new regulations to encroach on our freedoms. Tyranny is eternal, like crabgrass. Shield laws, to the extent that they marginalize everyman, are indeed evil.

dooright writes:

"Citizens" have been misinformed about the source of their liberties. The popular press, and prominent lawyers are fond of speaking about "first amendment rights", "second amendment rights", etc. as though these rights flowed from the U.S. Constitution.

They don't. These rights were self-evident, and pre-existed that document. Read it. The intent is obvious.

Confusion is caused by the special benefits granted to the franchisees of the fourteenth amendment, which is an entirely different citizenship. For those priveleges and immunities, read http://www.law.cornell.edu/anncon/htm...

lwolv writes:

Not to disparage the serious points that you make in this article, to me, the credentialling effort is doomed. All that is needed is a "Universal Life" Press for which anyone would be allowed to write and obtain credentials--or maybe just obtain credentials.

If a degree is required, then we could invent the Universal Life College. There are plenty of precedents for diploma mills, and who's to say that the journalism department at Universal Life College is not accredited? And, who does the accrediting?

Think of the questions that any regulatory credentialling apparatus would have to address:

1. Does electronic publishing, such as Slate, count as a medium to qualify journalists?
2. In determining types of publications eligible to establish credibility, how does one distinguish between a well-put-together web site and one that looks just like a blogspot that anyone can contribute to?
3. Are high-school or college students in journalism departments journalists even though they have not received their degrees? If I take a one-hour course at my local community college, would that qualify me if college students are qualified in that manner?
4. If I'm required to show an income from my journalism profession, how much constitutes an income? If I volunteer to write in an unpaid capacity for a legitimate journal, however defined, am I excluded from getting a journalism credential?
5. If I contribute an article unpaid to, say, the Botswana Gay Times or the Soweto, South Africa, Register, does that qualify me as a journalist? Do I have to document the printing of such an article?
6. Does this comment I'm writing count toward making me a jouralist?
7. If it were to appear as an op-ed piece, would it count?

The possibilities and questions are endless.

RhymesWithRight writes:

OK -- let's set aside the needless partisan bashing of Ashcroft and Gonzales. I'd trust either of them above any Democrat who has served in that office in my lifetime, and any of the likely appointees of the current Democrat contenders. Besides, such partisanship merely serves to weaken the important argument.

The reality is that the position you stake out is EXACTLY what the Founders would have said on the issue. All you needed to qualify as a "journalist" in the 1790s was a press, ink, and paper. The farce of "objectivity" wasn't a part of the concept, either -- consider folks like Fenno, Freneau, Bache and other editors of the highly partisan Federalist and Jeffersonian press of the era.

Somewhere along the way, America developed this notion of the “journalist” as some sort of royal priesthood, entitled to special rights and consideration that the ordinary rabble did not enjoy. That was, in large part, because of the practical obstacles to publishing a newspaper as our cities and nation grew larger – much less the costs inherent in broadcasting over the airwaves.

But the reality is, as you say, that the freedom of the press is a right that belongs to every citizen. The Internet has now returned us to the days of unfettered exercise of freedom of the press by the people -- and exposed the absurd claims of the "working journalist" to some special status. What makes my work as a blogger (http://rhymeswithright.mu.nu) any less deserving of protection than that of a reporter at my local paper? Why should I be excluded from events or subject to more intrusive searches than said reporter? And why should their sources and promises of confidentiality be granted greater privilege than mine? The answer should be clear to any thinking individual -- NOTHING!

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