Friday, October 25, 2013

Falling on Their Shield

People are surprised if and when they learn that I have a degree in journalism. In fact, I myself am surprised when I remember that I have one.

It so happens that I received a Master of Arts in journalism way back in the 1970s from Ohio State University’s School of Journalism. My professors there seemed amused that they were spending their retirement years lecturing students. Most of them had been working reporters who had acquired their journalistic skills on the job, not in the classroom. The idea of learning to be a journalist in a school seemed quaint to them.

My graduate adviser was an urbane former foreign correspondent for The New York Times. Another of my favorite profs was a burly guy who had covered the rough and tumble of Chicago crime and politics. What they all had in a common was a set of principles that guided their reporting.

Most important of all these principles was to get the facts right. You checked and double-checked everything you were told. The old line was, if your mother tells you she loves you, check it out! Another principle was that journalists should be looking out for the interest of the little guy. The admonition here was to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. But that didn’t mean that you carried water for any particular political party. When it came to politics, the working assumption was that all politicians were probably corrupt.

One topic that came up sometimes in my classes was the pros and cons of journalist shield laws. These are laws that are meant to protect reporters from being prosecuted for not revealing the names of confidential information sources. Today most states in the U.S., as well as the District of Columbia, have some form of shield law.

To date, there has never been a federal shield law, but there is currently a draft of one in a Senate committee. I have heard a number of working journalists on TV panels saying that this is something that is really needed. They say that is demonstrated by the Obama Administration’s targeting of The New York Times’s James Risen and Fox News’s similarly named James Rosen for talking to government leakers.

Personally, I think that the Justice Department’s actions in these cases are an outrage, especially in the case of Rosen, who was named in a court affadavitt as an unindicted “aider, abettor and co-conspirator” for merely receiving leaked information. So it would make sense for me to be in favor of a federal shield law, right? Wrong.

I side with my old journalism profs on this one and not with the newer, younger crop of reporters.

My Chicago guy argued forcefully that a shield law did not represent protection for journalists but rather a decrease in journalistic freedom. That is because the First Amendment, as written, is pretty absolute. Freedom of the press is not be interfered with by the federal government. What’s more, it’s a right that applies to all citizens, not just to “journalists.” Or, to put it another way, under the Constitution all citizens are journalists or at least potential journalists.

The fact is that the proposed federal shield law would not have been of any benefit to Risen or Rosen. The former was considered a witness to a crime, a situation that is excepted by the law. Nor would it have prevented Rosen’s (or, for that matter, the Associated Press’s) telephone records from being seized by the Justice Department.

What it would do is allow the government decide who does and does not qualify as a journalist. This would put the U.S. closer to many other countries in the world where you actually have to have a government license to practice journalism. Whatever protections the law offers would be limited to employees of major news organizations and/or those accredited by the government. I think it is safe to say that bloggers and self-publishers of the Thomas Paine variety need not apply.

My old profs strongly believed that press freedom should be fought for on constitutional civil liberty grounds for all citizens—not as government-granted protections to a select few. The end result of a federal shield law would effectively be less freedom of expression for everybody.

I guess the people who currently write for The Los Angeles Times, the Society of Professional Journalists and the Online News Association had different journalism professors than I did.

But then that is patently obvious. This current crop of reporters does not seem to approach government with the same skepticism and wariness that journalists used to have. Many of them are happy to take government announcements at face value and spin the same old timeworn narratives over and over, merely inserting new names and details.

When more and more people first began getting their news and information on the internet, many in the establishment press could be heard moaning about losing their traditional role as “gatekeeper.” This eroding of their privileged position may go a long way to explaining why a two-tier system of free speech appeals to many of them.

Yes, it’s true that there is a lot of misinformation—much of it wildly outlandish and even dangerous—out there in the wild, woolly internet. But at least it’s a place where you can still find some skepticism, curiosity and, occasionally, a bit of old-fashioned digging for facts.

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