Saturday, June 29, 2013

Government should not attempt to "define" journalist or journalism: Journalism is something people sometimes do, not something people are

In an essay headlined, "Time to Say Who's a Real Reporter," published in the Thursday June 27, 2013 Chicago Sun-Times, U.S. Senator Dick Durbin writes:
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.
No, Senator, no it doesn't. It doesn't even come close.

Senator Durbin insists that "not every blogger, tweeter or Facebook user is a 'journalist.'"

But sometimes mere bloggers, tweeters and Facebook users are journalists. Like so much else in the law, their status should depend on what they blog or tweet or post about, not on who they are.

On June 20, 2009 a young man participating in a protest in the streets of Tehran against that year's Iranian election witnessed a Basij militia member shoot a fellow protester, Neda Agha-Soltan, in the heart. He did more than witness. Robert Tait and Matthew Weaver, persons who would qualify as "journalists" under Senator Durbin's definition, explain in the June 22, 2009 edition of the Guardian:
Shortly after 5pm on Saturday ­afternoon, Hamed, an Iranian asylum seeker in the ­Netherlands, took a frantic call from a friend in Tehran.

"A girl has just been killed right next to me," the friend said. It had all ­happened quickly. A young woman, chatting on her mobile phone, had been shot in the chest. She faded before a doctor, who was on the scene, could do anything to help.

There was more. Hamed's friend, who does not want to be named, filmed the incident on his phone. Within moments the footage had landed in Hamed's inbox. Five minutes later it was on YouTube and Facebook.

Within hours it had become one of the most potent threats faced by the ­Iranian regime in 30 years.

"He asked me, is it possible to publish everything right now," Hamed said. "I published it on YouTube and Facebook and five minutes later it started to get many emails and messages and it ­published everywhere.
Hamed and his anonymous friend didn't graduate from Medill. Like as not, they probably had no 'training' in journalism whatsoever. But they were doing journalism in June 2009, if never before or since.

But, in Senator Durbin's scheme, Hamed would be entitled to no journalistic privilege -- meaning he could be compelled to name the friend who sent him the video of Neda's murder.

There are dozens of other examples that could be cited. If the world had to depend on government-designated "journalists" there would have been no Arab Spring: The Arab Spring blossomed because of Facebook and Twitter. The initial news about these uprisings came to the world by these same means.

Certainly, Facebook- and Twitter-use alone does not a journalist make. Endlessly recycled inspirational cartoons or kitten pictures do not amount to journalism. Gangbangers who use Facebook or Twitter to coordinate wildings on Michigan Avenue are not doing journalism either.

But even journalists don't "do journalism" all the time. Mike Royko would have met Senator Durbin's definition, surely, but was he really doing journalism when he was 'reporting' on the latest theories of Dr. I.M. Kooky or recounting the latest exploits of Slats Grobnik?

Founding Father Benjamin Franklin was America's first media mogul, controlling a string of newspapers in several colonial cities at one point. Surely he'd qualify as a journalist under Senator Durbin's definition, too. But was the teenage Ben Franklin a journalist (even though working in his brother's print shop) when he fabricated the Silence Dogood letters?

The individual or individuals who run Second City Cop would probably resent any suggestion that they (or he or she) are journalist(s). Second City Cop regularly makes fun of journalists, particularly when a story posted on the blog is belatedly picked up by the "legitimate" journalists Senator Durbin would want to protect. And yet -- after wading through the partisan rhetoric in which many posts are cloaked -- SCC clearly 'does journalism' on a regular basis. But Senator Durbin would permit (and, I'm sure, several members of the police brass and city government would welcome) exposure of the anonymous bloggers and compel revelation of their sources.

Senator Durbin says that 49 states have already decided who, and who is not, a journalist. In this, the Senator is right, but only because the several states are wrong. Shield statutes have been godsends on occasion, but their protection is woefully uneven because these statutes typically focus on a person's credentials rather than on the activity that the person was engaged in when considering whether that person can be compelled to disclose the sources of the information published.

Thus, in Illinois, the reporter's privilege is codified at §§8-901 to 8-909 of the Illinois Code of Civil Procedure, 735 ILCS 5/8-901 to 8-909. To qualify for the privilege, however, a person must first meet the statutory definition of "reporter" found at §8-902(a):
"Reporter" means any person regularly engaged in the business of collecting, writing or editing news for publication through a news medium on a full-time or part-time basis; and includes any person who was a reporter at the time the information sought was procured or obtained.
The term "news medium" is defined at §8-902(b):
"News medium" means any newspaper or other periodical issued at regular intervals whether in print or electronic format and having a general circulation; a news service whether in print or electronic format; a radio station; a television station; a television network; a community antenna television service; and any person or corporation engaged in the making of news reels or other motion picture news for public showing.
Good luck to the blogger trying to squeeze into that definition.

There are many other protections for persons who express themselves, online or off, without resort to special laws for journalists. But the idea of defining journalists in order to "protect" them seems downright un-American. With all due respect to Senator Durbin, a federal law in this regard would be a dangerous and unhealthy step in the wrong direction.

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