Saturday, February 09, 2008

Scott Gant: We’re All Journalists Now

Attorney Scott Gant takes up two causes in this book.
  1. The Supreme Court needs to better spell out the Constitutional role of the press - recognizing that the press has some unique rights, as government watchdogs, above those of individual free speech.
  2. The dominant model of journalists needs to be broadened from 'professional who is employed by a print or broadcast organization' to the 'activity of reporting events to the world through any medium' (not exact quotes, I returned the book to the library before I left) - internet is the key focus here.

As a blogger I only began thinking (and blogging) about journalistic privileges when the trials I was blogging about suddenly allowed ‘journalists’ to bring cell phones and laptops into the courtroom, but not other non-attorney attendees. So this book’s topic has a lot of interest for me. I posted a brief snippet when I first checked the book out, and finally got it finished before I left. Waiting to be on jury duty helped me get through it. So let me post this while my brain is partly still in the US and my 'normal' life.

Gant is passionate about the need for special privileges for journalists, mainly for shield laws to protect them from divulging the identity of sources, but also for access to events and documents in their role as watchdogs for the public.

He recognizes, though, that it might be possible to win universal recognition of journalistic privileges he wants, but have it limited to a narrow definition of journalist, which would cut out bloggers and others. So, he is also passionate about reframing the concept of journalist from it describing a profession to describing an activity. This, then would include all people who are reporting with the intent of telling others what is happening. He would get rid of requirements of training and certification as a journalist, of percent of income received as a journalist, of employment by a traditional journalistic medium such as newspapers, tv, radio, magazines.

On the way he walks us through the legal history of press rights, pointing out that the Suprement Court has tended to lump press freedoms into individual free speech rights and thus not accorded the press any special privileges as the press. It is mainly state laws which inconsistently give some rights in some states, but not in others - particularly shield laws. Custom, too, defers privileges to the press - the White House, Congression, and Supreme Court all have special access and facilities for selected journalists.

He also recognizes that there are some counter arguments and tells us why his soutions outweigh them.

His best arguments (from my perspective) are:
  1. The government shouldn’t be in the business of licensing the press. This concern is precisely why press rights are mentioned in the First Amendment. The biggest concern is that the government use this right to affect the content of journalism. But he does recognize there are some reasons to distinguish who is a journalist - particularly in situations where there is limited access, such as a courtroom.
  2. While the Constitution was written when ‘media’ (a word that didn’t then exist) was, literally, a printing press, and access to a press to print one’s opinion was relatively easy, the world is different now. Most traditional newspapers are now owned by conglomerates, not by families. These conglomerates see their media holdings as a business, not as a watchdog, and that these conglomerates now use the media directly or indirectly as part of their marketing campaigns.
  3. Thus, bloggers are more truly reflective of what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they put ‘freedom of the press’ into the US Constitution.

This is worth reading for those seriously interested in these issues, but be warned, it is repetitious. Most of it can be skimmed because he pushes the same points over and over and you are bound to read them even if you skip around. The legal history had the most hard information and least amount of opinion.

Even though he’s opposed to the notion of the government certifying journalists, he does talk about standards for journalists that relate to the activity of gathering information with the intent to report it. The real thorny question is the shield law question. Who should get the right to withhold information about criminal activity? If everyone can blog, at what point would attorneys advise their clients to start blogging so they got shield law protection? Like all the hokey religions that form so they can get a tax deductible status. (As I wrote that I wonder how many there actually are or whether I'm just repeating an urban legend. I couldn't find anything with a quick google on the topic. Here's one I found that's sort of related.) Gant at one points mentions that a journalist got the information with the intent to publish as one criterion. Though my first day in the courtroom was not with that intent in mind, I had been blogging, and it was a natural outcome of attending the trial.

I basically agree with Gant’s direction and pushing the idea of an activity rather than a profession. There already are, as he points out, lousy journalists who otherwise meet the standard criteria and outstanding bloggers who don’t. But he is also battling, as he recognizes, an uphill battle. I think these may be the first salvos and it will be a long hot battle.

In the meantime, I would push for an even more radical concept shift - that bloggers not worry that much about whether they become ‘mainstream journalists’ but rather push the boundaries of how one gathers and reports important information. Few of us are going to get called before grand juries and while the traditional media get information from the traditional places, we can look in other places instead. Meanwhile, the custom that has afforded journalists non-statutory privileges, the same will happen for good bloggers, and already has as some courtrooms and Congressional hearings with limited space have allocated some of that space to bloggers.

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