Congressional efforts to pass a federal Media Shield Law, which would introduce additional protections for journalists from government interference and surveillance, are being stymied as the U.S. Senate tries to solve a question of definition: Who do we consider “real” journalists?
For fear, apparently, of WikiLeaks, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) has backed an amendment supporting a remarkably old-fashioned and unrealistic set of restrictions on the term:
A real reporter, declared Feinstein during a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, is “a salaried agent” of a media company like the New York Times or ABC News, not a “shoestring operation with volunteers and writers who are not paid.”
Feinstein — who CBLDF readers may also remember as a proponent of blame for video games in cases of youth violence — apparently fears that “that the current version of the bill would grant a special privilege to people who aren’t really reporters at all, who have no professional qualifications.”
Instead, her amendment proposes to make recognized corporate media outlets the sole judge of professional qualifications by virtue of their hiring practices, limiting the protection of everyone ranging from independent, online-based writers and cartoonists like Susie Cagle — twice arrested while covering Occupy Oakland because of what were deemed the “wrong kind” of press credentials — to the increasingly common backbone of even the most recognized print and television outlets: non-salaried freelance writers who are paid per word by whomever has the work.
The initial sponsor of the bill, Sen. Charles Schumer (D-NY), shares Feinstein’s belief that his law should not protect government whistleblowers, but objects to Feinsteins excessively narrow version of “real reporters”:
“The world has changed. We’re very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn’t be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we’ve ensured that,” Schumer said. “But there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we’re used to. They should not be excluded from this bill.”
Instead, Schumer stands by the bill’s current definition. According to McClatchy, who sat in on the hearings:
The bill defines a journalist as a person who has a “primary intent to investigate events and procure material” in order to inform the public by regularly gathering information through interviews and observations. The person also must intend to report on the news at the start of obtaining any protected information and must plan to publish that news.
By defining a journalist by intent and action, rather than by the return address and regularity of their paycheck, the unamended version recognizes the shifting paradigm in media business models, and is able protect professional and passionate journalists from huge multi-paper conglomerates, to local weekly news magazines, to nonprofit volunteer operations like CBLDF.
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Joe Izenman is a freelance writer and musician in Spokane, Washington. He owns a lot of comics and he’s pretty sure someone, somewhere would be offended by more than a few of them.