In class this week we have been discussing the danger of the government defining who is and who is not a journalist. As a cardinal rule, governments should not get to credential the press because it is the fastest way to have a press that is uncritical of power.
Those in power would only credential journalists who will serve the governments’ best interest — which was the exact opposite of what the founders of our country have in mind when they developed the First Amendment and the Constitution. The founders would not have been in power if not thanks to a dissident and free press; somehow, however, we have come to a time again in which our politicians have gained power not through a dissident press, but a mainstream one. Now, those politicians try to narrowly define journalists in order to maintain that power.
This week we read the Common Dreams article “Senator’s Attempt to Define ‘Real Journalism’ Blasted by Journalists,” by Sarah Lazare. Lazare writes about Sen. Diane Feinstein’s attempt to define who is a journalist during a debate regarding a federal shield law. But what was more worrisome was what the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer said:
“The world has changed. We’re very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn’t be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we’ve ensured that,” said Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y). “But there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we’re used to. They should not be excluded from this bill.”
Even the sponsor for the bill — who, in theory, should be journalists’ champion — wanted the bill to be exclusionary and to particularly exclude the most dissident of information disseminators.
I started reading different opinions on the internet, including the NAA’s Five Myths about the Federal Shield Law and documentary journalists Tricia Todd’s blog for HuffPost. I also looked around on the SPJ website and found that, a month after the Common Dreams, SPJ President Paul Fletcher blogged about the definition the Senate ended up with:
The definition is really broad, as it should be. It includes college journalists, freelancers, bloggers (particularly those with traditional legacy media experience in the past 20 years), anyone working for a “news website” and just about anyone else gathering information and disseminating it for the public good. It specifically excludes terrorists and there is language that would exclude groups like WikiLeaks.
And it has a safety valve: If there is disagreement a judge can decide.
Even after our class debate, I’m still thinking a lot about the issue — mostly asking myself, is there another way? I support a federal shield law. And I wonder, can we have one without defining what it means to commit an act of journalism? Can we define journalism while we protect it? The First Amendment is noticeably brief on the subject, simply stating “the press” when referring who to protect. Can that continue to be enough?