Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Who's fit to print the news?

David Shaw, the esteemed media columnist of the Los Angeles Times, steamed a lot of people when he argued that bloggers ought to be drowned like so many surplus kittens in the interests of protecting real journalists like him.

"Bloggers require no journalistic experience," he huffed.

Bloggers "don't seem to worry much about being accurate," he puffed.

And then he blew down the house:
Given the explosive growth of the blogosphere, some judge is bound to rule on the question one day soon, and when he does, I hope he says the nation's estimated 8 million bloggers are not entitled to the same constitutional protection as traditional journalists.
David is right that open-tsoris journalism is, in fact, about as wild and wooly as it can be. But his reasoning couldn't be more perverse when he says that bloggers should be denied the same protection accorded journalists who are shielded by law in 31 states from being forced to identify their confidential sources.

If David had his way, the courts would get to determine which correspondents were entitled to journalistic protection. Having government decide who is -- or isn't -- a journalist is a terrible idea.

A freelance mom covering the PTA for a radio show in Peoria might be shielded, while a mighty media columnist for the L.A. Times -- who writes opinion pieces, not empirically factual news -- might not qualify. Someone covering soccer for a weekly in San Jose could be shielded because he works for a newspaper, while an analyst for MarketWatch is forced to name names or go to jail because she works for an online publication.

Arguing that bloggers operate outside the "institutional safeguards" observed by newspapers, magazines and broadcasting to ensure fairness and accuracy, David says, "I don't think the reporter's shield law should be available to anyone so quick to disseminate inaccurate information, with no editors to examine or restrain him."

If "institutional safeguards" become the standard for shielding journalists, then scratch the New York Times because of Jayson Blair, CBS News because of Memogate, the Washington Post because of Janet Cooke and the Los Angeles Times because of the Staples Center scandal that led to the jettisoning of the editor, publisher and CEO of the whole dang corporation. Radio and TV reporters never would qualify for shield protection, because live standups aren't vetted at all; it's just their lips to your ears.

"If the courts allow every Tom, Dick and Matt who wants to call himself a journalist to invoke the privilege to protect confidential sources, the public will become even less trusting than it already is of all journalists," says David. "I feel particularly strongly about this now, at a time when the Bush administration is hounding reporters in several cases to divulge their confidential sources or face prison for contempt...."

David is dead wrong on two counts.

First, it is conventional journalists themselves who have lost the public trust through the high-profile scandals mentioned above, as well as the hijinks of presumably legitimate reporters in the hire of the spin-savvy Bush administrations in Washington and Florida.

Second, it is precisely because President Bush is on a media witch hunt that journalists must close ranks to ensure the strongest protection of the right to unfettered inquiry and free expression. If respected writers like David Shaw leave the right-wing media bashers a sliver of daylight, they will drive a tank, or at least a luxuriously appointed Humvee, right through it.

David is absolutely correct that these are dangerous times for the media. But he can't possibly be serious about putting the government in the position of picking and choosing who is fit to print the news.


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