This may be one of the most frightening events that’s threatened free speech and the free press in this country. The Senate has passed a media shield law that defined journalism and where the only protected class of journalist are those involved in legitimate news-gathering activities.
From a 10,000 foot view, the bill seems like a great idea. The LA Times even calls it a “Bill to protect journalists”. The problem is the underlying language that allows the government to define what a journalist is, who a journalist is, or what legitimate news-gathering is.
Here’s my take. Citizen journalism is applying insurmountable pressure on our government that’s exposing a ton of issues. Of course there’s bi-partisan support to redefine and narrow the scope of who or what a journalism is. Anyone threatening to expose government problems may lose their protections of the press under our Constitution. All politicians would love that… it means they could apply government forces to threaten and intimidate those they disagree with.
Whether you agree with Edward Snowden or not, the information he released informed the public and caused outrage of the programs where the NSA was spying on us. This bill doesn’t impact the legalities of what Snowden did. Frighteningly, it could impact whether or not the journalist who released it was legitimate, though, had he been an American citizen. Was releasing classified materials legitimate news-gathering?
Between 1972 and 1976, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein emerged as two of the most famous journalists in America and became forever identified as the reporters who broke Watergate, the biggest story in American politics. Much of the information they were provided was accomplished through an informant within the White House. Was that legitimate news-gathering?
Perhaps Republicans in power could state that MSNBC is not legitimate. Perhaps Democrats in power could state Fox News isn’t legitimate. What if one journalist exposes a huge government scandal through less than legitimate news-gathering? Can he/she be thrown in jail and the scandal buried? These are just the problems within traditional media. It gets worse when you think about the Internet and whether writing an article on a Wiki is protected (you might not be classified a blogger or a journalist).
What about when you start a Facebook page to oppose or support a topic. You spend a ton of time curating information the internet, sharing it on your Facebook page, growing an audience and building a community. Are you a journalist? Is your Facebook page protected? Did you gather the information you shared legitimately? Or… could you get sued by the opposition, the community shut down, and even get locked up because you’re not protected under the Government’s definition.
With social media and the digital web, virtually every person participating is gathering and sharing news. We should all be protected.
Back when the Constitution was written, any average person on the street who could borrow or afford a printing press was a journalist. If you go back and review some of the single page papers that were printed back then, they were atrocious. Politicians were smeared with absolute lies to misrepresent them to the public in order to bury their political aspirations. Being a journalist didn’t require a degree… you didn’t even have to spell or use proper grammar! And news organizations didn’t appear until decades later as newspapers began to buy up the smaller circulations. This led to the news media moguls we have today.
The first journalists were very much just citizens getting the word out. There was zero legitimacy to who they targeted, how they acquired the information, or where they published it. And yet… our leaders of our country… who were often the target of these attacks… chose to protect the rights of free speech and journalism. They chose, intentionally, not to define what the press was, how news was gathered, or by whom.