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Government Should Not Define What a Reporter is—or Isn’t

Government Should Not Define What a Reporter is—or Isn’t

by Walter Brasch
August 19, 2013

Sen. Diane Feinstein and a horde of members of Congress of both parties want to decide who is and who isn’t a reporter. Sen. Feinstein says a “real” reporter is a “salaried agent of a media company.”

She mentions the usual suspects—New York Times, ABC News. She dismisses part-time staff. She dismisses freelancers. She dismisses those who write, often without pay, for the hundreds of alternative publications, and often break news and investigative stories well ahead of the mainstream media. She dismisses anyone who, she says, “have no professional qualifications.”

The reason she wants to define what a reporter is or isn’t is because there’s a federal Media Shield Law that protects reporters from revealing their sources. She wants to amend that to take away existing First Amendment protections from anyone not involved in—apparently—salaried establishment media.

There are people who have minimal qualifications to be a reporter. Many write nothing but screeds. Many have problems with basic language skills. Many have little familiarity with the AP Style Book. Many have an inability to ask probing questions of government officials; many merely transcribe what they’re told, whether from the president, a council member, or a local reader who is the focus of a feature. Some of them are paid salaries and are agents of media companies, which Sen. Feinstein believes are acceptable requirements.

There are also those who frequently allow “deep background” and “off-the-record” comments. Many news media won’t allow sources to go “off-the-record.” If the information isn’t available to the general public, it shouldn’t be available only to reporters. Access to news sources is something reporters enjoy that the average reader doesn’t; but there is a responsibility to the reader and viewer and listener not to hide information.

There are those who overuse the “veiled news source,” which is a part of the Shield Law. A veiled news source could be someone whom the reporter identifies as, “Sources close to the Governor state . . .” Often, the reporter doesn’t question a source’s motives for why she or he wants to give anonymous information, or if it is merely a “trial balloon” to use the media to put out information; if the people agree, sources become identified; if the public disagrees with a proposal, no one traces the “leak” to politicians or their staffs.

On more than a few occasions, reporters—whether “salaried agents” of a media company, part-timers for that company or for any of thousands of alternative publications or electronic media, or freelancers—have filled in holes in their stories with false identities—“A 55-year-old housewife in Podunka, who asked not to be identified, says . . . ” Good reporters seldom use a veiled news source and then have to protect them should there be a court order to divulge the source of information.

On rare occasions, however, a reporter, in consultation with an editor, will allow a news source to be anonymous. Granting veiled news source status should not be given unless a source’s information and identity puts her or him into significant personal jeopardy—and the information can be verified.

But, even if there are reporters who are lazy, who plagiarize, who abuse the veiled news source privilege, there are no enforceable ethics rules in journalism. Reporters aren’t licensed—such as physicians, social workers, teachers, contractors, and cosmetologists. Only an editor can discipline or terminate an employee.

Nevertheless, whenever the government says it wants to define what a reporter is or is not—and the public, outraged over something a reporter or news operation did or did not do demands licensing and enforceable codes of ethics—a huge red flag should be in everyone’s face. Not one part of the First Amendment determines who or what a reporter is, or what is or is not news. The Founding Fathers didn’t forget to include that; they deliberately didn’t want to include that. They believed government shouldn’t be making those decisions, and the news media, even the media that base their news upon lies and scandal, must be independent.

And, yet, government and the news media often wink at the intent of the Founding Fathers and cozy up together.

The only thing more outrageous than reporters and sources playing golf or tennis together is reporters schmoozing at political receptions, the women dressed like they were movie celebrities on the Red Carpet, the men in tuxedos. And the reason why they go to these receptions? They claim it’s because they “get their information” there.

But, “socializing” isn’t the only thing that violates the intent of the Founding Fathers. It probably isn’t a good practice for Congress to appoint news correspondents to determine who is or is not qualified to receive press credentials—subject to the oversight of House and Senate leaders. Until recently, the establishment press of “salaried agents” refused even to acknowledge that members of the alternative press, even those who have won awards for investigative reporting, should be allowed the privileges that mainstream reporters are allowed.

It violates the First Amendment when police agencies and governments at all levels decide who can or can’t cover its activities. Usually, the ones excluded are reporters who are not “agents” of an establishment media company.

Until recently, it violated the intent of the First Amendment when the Federal Communications Commission determined what percentage of each day’s programming should be devoted to which category because of a law Congress created that decided electronic media, unlike print media, are required to meet the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.”

Under Sen. Feinstein’s belief of who and what a reporter is, Ben Franklin, who wrote hundreds of articles under the byline of Silence Do-Good, and was never paid for it, would not be considered to be a reporter.

*************

In a 40-year professional career, Dr. Brasch has been a reporter and editor for newspapers and magazines, a multimedia writer-producer, and university professor. He writes a syndicated weekly social issues column and is the author of 18 books, most of them fusing history with contemporary social issues. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania.

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