Who’s a journalist? Sen. Dianne Feinstein wants to draw a line

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein

Sen. Dianne Feinstein

When I teach journalism classes, I like to shock the students by telling them that journalists aren’t professionals in the sense that doctors, lawyers, accountants or even beauticians are.

You don’t need a license or a degree to work as a reporter or editor in this country; in fact, ifCongress or a state decided to license journalists the Supreme Court surely would blow its 1st Amendment whistle.

And yet … though government doesn’t license journalists, for decades it has defined journalists for certain purposes. Exhibit A: Although the Supreme Court has rejected the idea that reporters have a 1st Amendment right to protect the identities of their confidential sources, most states provide a “privilege” to that effect.

California’s so-called shield law — part of the state Constitution — says reporters and editors for newspapers, magazines and broadcast news organizations can’t be held in contempt for refusing to identify a source or turn over unpublished information. In 2006, the California Court of Appeal extended the protection of the shield law to  “news-oriented websites.”

Any legal definition of “journalist” can be nitpicked. For example, Pennsylvania’s shield law covers journalists who work for a publication of “general circulation,” which would seem to exclude student journalists and reporters for religious, union and other special-interest publications.

The definition problem has become more complicated with the advent of the Internet. Are bloggers journalists? What if they don’t get paid? And what about an organization such as WikiLeaks, which posts vast quantities of classified information (some of which also has appeared in newspapers)?

Congress has been wrestling with these questions in trying to draft a federal shield law. On Thursday, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved a proposed shield law that defines “covered journalists” fairly generously – college journalists qualify, for example — but also makes it clear that WikiLeaks wouldn’t benefit.

An amendment sponsored by Sen. Dianne Feinstein says that there would be no legal protection for “any person or entity whose principal function … is to publish source documents that have been disclosed to such person or entity without authorization.”

The anti-WikiLeaks provision is offensive to people on the left who see no difference between Julian Assange (or Bradley Manning) and a member of the mainstream media.

Other critics of various political views argue that instead of focusing on the definition of “journalist,” Congress should protect the activity of journalism. As blogger and talk-show host Ed Morrissey put it: “Any shield law should concern itself with process and not identification.”

That may sound simple, but “journalism” can be as tricky to define as “journalist.” Does it include tweets by the press secretary of a political candidate knocking his boss’ opponent? The blog posts of an activist who makes no pretense of objective reporting? An article in an energy company magazine about the benefits of fracking? A malicious restaurant review on Yelp? How about a high school student’s Facebook post citing “confidential sources” who accuse a teacher of being an alcoholic?

Even if the Supreme Court were to reverse course and decide that the 1stAmendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press created a journalist’s privilege, it would have to decide hard cases about who qualified as a journalist and what qualified as journalism.

Whether the court or Congress is drawing the lines, one thing is clear: If everyone’s a journalist, nobody is.

Courtesy of Los Angeles Times

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