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

by Walter Brasch

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 proposed federal Media Shield Law that would protect reporters from revealing their sources. Forty states and the District of Columbia currently have shield laws. Sen. Feinstein wants to amend the federal bill 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.]


News & Notes July 20, 2011

I spent yesterday morning getting a root canal, a wonderful experience only because it saves a tooth and ends some pain.  Having found a badly infected tooth explains why I was so lethargic the past few weeks.  As I quickly approach the big 6-0 more and more of my body fails me.  Not that I’m complaining since I never expected to see 50 much less 60.

With the state legislature on hiatus the action going on has been in Washington over the debt ceiling vote.  Normally summers are rather quiet on the political front, especially August when they all go on vacation.  I’ll be in New Mexico again traveling to Santa Fe on August 20th and returning September 7th just in time for the Democratic State Committee meeting in Gettysburg.

Amid new reports she suffers from debilitating migraine headaches Presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann dodged questions from ABC News reporter Brian Ross.  The candidate’s security shoved him after an event in South Carolina.  He wanted to know if she’d missed votes due to her headaches.  This, obviously, would be an important factor for voters electing someone to such a crucial decision making position.  I think Bachmann needs to release her medical records, something expected of every major presidential contender.

Speaking of Bachmann she has also been mired in controversy for her husband Marcus’ “clinic” where they use religious prayer on clients to “pray the gay away.”  Undercover video showed a therapist equating gays to barbarians.  I think they need therapy for their transference issues.  After the audio received wide coverage Bacmann tried to deny the statement but evidence showed the recording NOT to have been doctored.  The Bachmann clinic in Minnesota is partially funded by the state.

In a 2010 interview with the Christian radio show ‘Point of View,” Bachmann was asked how parents should deal with LGBT teenagers, to which the good doctor replied, “We have to understand: Barbarians need to be educated… They need to be disciplined. Just because someone feels it or thinks it doesn’t mean that we are supposed to go down that road.”

While her Tea Party supporters and other morons keep claiming the U.S. has the best health care in the world (we don’t and it isn’t even close) a new report says we now have the second highest newborn death rate in the modern world.  Maybe this is because people like the Koch Brothers and their Tea Party enablers are turning us into a Third World country.  The Paul Ryan Plan and the Cut, Cap and Destroy legislation passed yesterday in the House would gut programs and benefits for children, the elderly and the disabled.  How we treat those most vulnerable among us says what and who we are as a people.  I’m afraid this statement is now very ugly.

The first Wisconsin recall election was held yesterday and Democrat Dave Hansen won.  The showdowns are the result of the anti-labor, anti-middle class warfare raging there earlier this year.

The Senate Judiciary Committee began deliberating a repeal to the Defense of Marriage Act.  The Respect For Marriage Act introduced by Diane Feinstein of California produced no credible arguments from the religious fringe.   Al Franken really tore up Focus on the Family: