June 24th, 2006

NEOBabble’s Chas Rich noted yesterday that both houses of Congress have Federal Shield Laws under consideration. Shield laws grant certain privileges of confidentiality to journalists in recognition of their public service as watchdogs of politicians and others who might violate the public trust.

Currently there is a hodge podge of laws that vary from state to state. There is no Federal Shield Law.

House Resolution 3323, the Free Flow of Information Act of 2005 and Senate 2831, the Free Flow of Information Act of 2006 both contain language intended to create the missing Federal Shield Law. And that is a good thing. But as Chas notes, both bills very narrowly define those people protected.

The House version reads:

(2) COVERED PERSON- The term `covered person’ means —

(A) an entity that disseminates information by print, broadcast, cable, satellite, mechanical, photographic, electronic, or other means and that —

(i) publishes a newspaper, book, magazine, or other periodical in print or electronic form;

(ii) operates a radio or television broadcast station (or network of such stations), cable system, or satellite carrier, or a channel or programming service for any such station, network, system, or carrier; or

(iii) operates a news agency or wire service;

(B) a parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such an entity to the extent that such parent, subsidiary, or affiliate is engaged in news gathering or the dissemination of news and information; or

(C) an employee, contractor, or other person who gathers, edits, photographs, records, prepares, or disseminates news or information for such an entity.

The Senate version reads:

(3) the term ‘journalist’ means a person who, for financial gain or livelihood, is engaged in gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing news or information as a salaried employee of or independent contractor for a newspaper, news journal, news agency, book publisher, press association, wire service, radio or television station, network, magazine, Internet news service, or other professional medium or agency which has as 1 of its regular functions the processing and researching of news or information intended for dissemination to the public.

Which means, as Chas rightly observes, he, as a blogger getting paid by Cleveland.com, would be covered. Roldo Bartimole, Cleveland’s preeminent citizen journalist, would not be. That’s wrong.

And it’s all Thomas Jefferson’s the fault. Why? Because the first Amendment (with my own emphasis) reads:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

It all comes down to one word: Press. What does that word mean?

In the 20th, and now 21st, century we understand that name to describe people who are involved in the discovery, illumination and dissemination of news. But that’s not what Jefferson meant. He used the term quite literally. If you owned a printing press, then the Congress was prohibited from making laws that prevented you from using that piece of hardware as you saw fit.

And printing presses were expensive pieces of equipment. Add to that the cost of the paper and ink and you had an enterprise that involved no little sum of money. Over the next 200 years that slowly changed. The mimeograph machine (and later the photocopier) gave basement movements access to printed handbills and newsletters. Yet such Citizen Journalism was often short lived and restricted in scope.

It was radio and television that gouged the first potholes in the road. They used no printing presses but these news organization engaged in the same kind of Press activities. Only the means of distribution changed. The members of the Press, the staffs of our nation’s newspapers and magazines grudgingly recognized this and welcomed these electronic siblings to the hunt.

All of these permutations of Press, however, required capital. The cost varies from hundreds to millions of dollars, but some money must be spent. Not so with the Internet.

It is possible, in this summer of 2006, for an individual with something to say to make use of a public access computer and distribute their thoughts and observations to billions of readers around the globe and not spend a single penny. That kind of bowel-watering power terrifies those who have held the keys to information and power.

Rightly, as Chas writes, organization such as Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the Society of Professional Journalists all support the bills because they are beneficial to their members. But I’ve yet to discovers these, or any other news organizations, calling for the shield’s extension to all.

Would doing that be problematic? Hell yes. But it’s an issue we must wrestle with.

Recently, Jill Miller Zimon blogged about the conflict presented when she paid her $150 to attend the Ohio Democratic Party dinner earlier this month but received a blogger credential when she signed in. Not a general admission credential. Not a media credential. A blogger credential. Jill’s observations on the evening are very illuminating.

But this is at least clear: in the eyes of the professional staff of the Ohio Democratic Party, bloggers are not media, not members of the Press, and as such, not worthy of protection under shield laws.

All of this was further compounded by another event this month. Some 1,000 bloggers traveled in real time to Las Vegas to take part in Yearly Kos. I’ve been trying for weeks to wrap my head around what I want to say about the convention and what I think it means to bloggers.

What does Markos Moulitsas and his blog Daily Kos have to do with shield laws?

Moulitsas would be no Mercutio, yet his message in Las Vegas does resonate. Republicans have failed us because they can’t govern. Democrats have failed because they can’t get elected. So now it’s our turn, he said.

This failure seems less in governance and more in the giving of props.In abasement, Democrats stumbled all over themselves ensure the good wishes of the perceived Moulitsas money machine.

New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney described the simpering hoard as a parade of prospective Democratic presidential candidates and party leaders, their presence a tribute to just how much the often rowdy voices of the Web have been absorbed into the very political process they frequently disdain….

And still another oberserver of the Las Vegas convention, Jeff Jarvis writes:

The Kos event is a fascinating clash of lines:

What is the line between blogger and media? Nagourney and Maureen Dowd (expensive link) wonder whether the bloggers are trying to be media as they go off to write books or columns in big publications. Also, judging by rather slapdash way Dowd wrote her column, one might wonder whether media are trying to be bloggers.

What is the line between blogger and activist? Markos makes it very clear that he”s the latter. But not everyone in the crowd would paint themselves similarly. Still, they”re all there because they share agendas and from an old-style journalistic perspective (we have no opinions, we have no agenda), then that makes them activists. But from a new-style blogger perspective (I am media, hear me roar), that makes them media. Is activism media? Should media be activism? Nagourney makes the rather silly observation that there weren”t Republicans in the crowd. Well, of course not. Whether this was a meeting of activists or a meeting of media makers, it was definitely a meeting of Democrats – well, Democrats of the Kos kamp.

What is the line between insider and outsider? In one breath, you hear the attendees talking about taking over the party. In the next gasp, you hear them talk about supplanting both parties. Markos declared in his acceptance (of adulation and power, if not office) speech: “Both parties have failed us. Republicans have failed us because they can”t govern. Democrats have failed because they can”t get elected. So now it”s our turn.” So is this an attempt to influence the party (Howard Dean, today) or to take it over (Howard Dean, yesteryear)?

And what is the line between Democrat and Democrat? The Kossaks, like the Deaniacs before them, push orthodoxy over the dialectic. They are the outsiders who want to be in and who decide who”s in and who”s out. When asked about whether Hillary Clinton would be welcome at his event, Kos said, “Oh, my God, no way!” Nagourney said she declined an invitation. The outsiders declare she”s in the wrong crowd so she”s out with them.

Perhaps it is time to recognize that when everyone has the potential to own a press, then we are all the Press. Shield laws be damned. What has been preserved as a special protection for a few should now be the general protection assured for all.

More voices:


Reporters and Bloggers: Synergies and Divergencies

The Markos Regime

My Soundtrack: Possibly Maybe by Bjork on WOXY.

2 Responses to “OUT IN THE COLD…”

  1. Jill says:

    Just to prove you wrong that this post has been read and considered. :) Also, Technorati is telling me that you wrote something like “I liked Jill’s take on the question and I’ll always remember a conversation with John” in this post and I can’t find it anywhere. Phantom posts – I did that yesterday.

    Wendy Hoke is very knowledgeable about the shield laws also and speaks about them from the perspectives of a journalist, a freelancer and a blogger. I hope she finds time to weigh in here.

  2. Jeff Hess says:

    Shalom Jill,

    I have a very bad habit of editing after I’ve posted. I’ve actually been working, off and on, with this post for about two weeks.

    What Technorait picked up was a brief posting when I was checking line breaks.



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