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Journalism: You Know It When You See It

Wednesday, 21 August 2013 14:19 By The Daily Take, The Thom Hartmann Program | Op-Ed
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Keyboard.(Photo: Sarah Ross / Flickr)Right now, Dianne Feinstein and other members of the U.S. Senate are trying to define the word press – the same press that is mentioned in the first line of the First Amendment to the Constitution. No matter how well intentioned their plan may be, it could backfire badly.

When news first broke back in May that the Justice Department had seized the phone records of Associated Press reporters and tracked the movements of Fox News’ James Rosen, it was a great opportunity for Congress to pass the stronger protections for freedom of the press that liberty requires.

The public was outraged and big name Senators from both parties, including New York’s Chuck Schumer and South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham, proposed new laws to protect journalists from prosecution.

That bipartisan push for a media shield law has now hit a snag.

And that snag is Senators like California’s Dianne Feinstein who don’t think bloggers and tweeters should have the same First Amendment protections as reporters who work for big corporate outlets like Fox or The New York Times.

In its current form, the Senate’s media shield law requires the Justice Department to give any journalists a 45 days heads up when they want to snoop on them.

A journalist, according to the pending bill, is anyone who has a "primary intent to investigate events and procure material.”

Sounds pretty simple, right? Not for Dianne Feinstein.

The California Senator told her colleagues earlier this month that she’s worried that the word “journalist” is so vague that the proposed media shield law could “…provide special privilege[s] to those who are not reporters at all."

In Senator Feinstein’s opinion, “real reporters” have salaries. In other words, they have to work for “official” news agencies recognized by the Washington establishment.

Senator Feinstein wants to make sure that the Senate’s media shield law doesn’t save WikiLeaks from prosecution, but if Congress were to limit media shield protections only to “paid” journalists, that would leave any number of bloggers, tweeters, and independent citizen journalists open to prosecution by the federal government just because they don’t take home a paycheck.

That is just wrong.

Journalism is not profession or person, it’s an act. Anyone who comments on the news, anyone who cultivates sources, anyone who breaks a story about government corruption – that person is engaging in an act of journalism.

Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about pornography that he “knew it when he saw it.” The same goes for journalism. You know it when you see it. It sounds vague, but it’s true.

The idea of journalism as an act is especially relevant today. With the rise of the internet and digital journalism, anyone who wants to be part of the press can be part of the press. You don’t need special qualifications or a graduate degree; just a good news sense and hard work.

If the purpose of the press is to inform the public, then bloggers and Twitter users – and even WikiLeaks for that matter – fit the bill. They may not get paid for what they do, but what they do is an essential part of the democratic process, an essential check on the powers of government, and essential to American liberty.

Independent freelance blogs and organizations like WikiLeaks are arguably even better news sources than traditional media outlets, because they aren’t compromised by corporate sponsors and are open to anyone who can break a story.

The Constitution mentions only one industry by name.

And that industry is the press.

For the Founding Fathers, there was no institution more important for a democratic society than a free and independent media. Right there at the top of the Bill of Rights in the First Amendment - they wrote that “Congress shall make no law...abridging the freedom of speech - or of the press.”

But “the press” is a special industry. It should include everyone who publishes, tweets, or comments on news. It should include everyone who acts to inform the public. And those acts deserve protection, regardless of who does them or how.

Thomas Jefferson once said that he would rather have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers.    

If Jefferson were alive today, he’d probably say the same thing about blogs, Twitter, and even WikiLeaks.

For the First Amendment to keep us free, we must fight to keep the definition of the “press” as all inclusive as possible. We must demand that our elected representatives protect acts of journalism, rather than just paid professional journalists.

I know journalism when I see it. And anyone who informs the public about what’s going on in the world, in the halls of Congress, or on the streets of their city is engaging in journalism.

Period. End of story.

This article was first published on Truthout and any reprint or reproduction on any other website must acknowledge Truthout as the original site of publication.

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