Sen. Dick Durbin: Journalists Deserve Protection But We'll Decide Who's Actually A Journalist
from the trade-your-laptop-in-for-a-notepad-for-extra-journo-cred dept
Illinois Senator Dick Durbin has penned an editorial for the Chicago Sun-Times in which he argues that journalists need some form of government-granted protection, but that the government should decide who is a real journalist and who isn’t.
As he points out, there is currently no national “shield” law that protects journalists and their sources, although a bill along those lines is slowly making its way through the system. Durbin seems to feel a great many people should be excluded from this protection, though — possibly for no other reason than the platform used.
The media informs the public and holds government accountable. Journalists should have reasonable legal protections to do their important work. But not every blogger, tweeter or Facebook user is a “journalist.” While social media allows tens of millions of people to share information publicly, it does not entitle them to special legal protections to ignore requests for documents or information from grand juries, judges or other law enforcement personnel.
There’s your new have-nots, if Durbin’s deciding. Here’s the list of who Durbin feels actually deserves the “journalist” label and its associated protections.
A journalist gathers information for a media outlet that disseminates the information through a broadly defined “medium” — including newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, magazine, news website, television, radio or motion picture — for public use. This broad definition covers every form of legitimate journalism.
The internet: illegitimate journalism. Journalism isn’t a static object with a single definition, it’s something people do, with or without the title, and the dissemination of these endeavors spans many platforms. While there are a lot of old school journalism outlets listed, Durbin also includes “news website,” which covers a whole lot of gray area (Buzzfeed? TMZ? Vice?). Without further details, it would appear a “news website” will probably have to be anchored by one of the other “time-honored” journalism outlets.
If a newspaper journalist writes a blog on the side or maintains a Twitter account, are those sidelines protected because of his or her position, or is it only what appears on the printed page/associated news website? Or conversely, if someone’s journalism efforts are mainly relegated to platforms not covered by Durbin’s list but occasionally contribute to “legitimate journalism,” does that cover the non-associated online work as well? No matter how these instances play out, “journalism” is being defined by media form rather than by the activity itself. While the government should recognize freedom of the press and grant protection to journalists, it becomes problematic when the definition is narrowed to pre-existing forms that don’t truly reflect journalism as it exists today.
Durbin says that those who think the government shouldn’t be able to define journalism need to be reminded that 49 states already do just that. That doesn’t make these definitions better or more acceptable and certainly shouldn’t be taken as some sort of tacit permission for the federal government to define what media forms it will protect and which it won’t.
He goes on to cite recent events as evidence this protection is needed.
The leaks of classified information about the NSA’s surveillance operations and an ongoing Justice Department investigation into who disclosed secret documents to the Associated Press have brought this issue back to the forefront and raised important questions about the freedom of speech, freedom of the press and how our nation defines journalism.
Journalists should certainly be shielded from those who think they should be prosecuted for exposing leaked documents. But this administration isn’t interested in protecting whistleblowers and, if it wasn’t running up against existing “freedom of the press protections,” would probably be punishing journalists as well. Allowing the government to pick and choose who is protected will likely result in a large number of unprotected journalists, thanks to an inadequate definition. And even this additional protection is unlikely to prevent entities like the DOJ from violating the Fourth Amendment in a search for sources and whistleblowers. If you’re already violating civil liberties, breaking a law isn’t much of a concern.