Chron editorialists want new privileges for "journalists"

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Today’s Chron editorial advocating new privileges for journalists based on a mischaracterization of the Plame affair seems once again to take the editorialists far from the ideal state the opinion page’s interim editor has previously glorified.

The editorial begins with an overblown assertion:

Two news reporters, Judith Miller of The New York Times and Matthew Cooper of Time magazine, face going to jail for 18 months. Their crime? They agreed to listen to what a senior administration official had to say on the condition that they would not publicly connect the information with the official’s name.

No, that’s not their crime. Local blogger and attorney William Dyer has knocked down similar contentions effectively (most recently here), as has Orrin Judd. The First Amendment does not, and should not (they contend) bestow any privilege on a journalist or anyone else to withhold information related to a crime.

In response to their manufactured outrage, though, the editors urge passage of a Democratic bill in the state legislature that would confer new privileges on “journalists”:

Rep. Aaron Pena, D-Edinburgh, has introduced a bill that in most cases would shield journalists from government inquiries. The Chronicle strongly urges the Legislature to pass Pena’s HB 188, with a slight amendment.


The bill’s Section C allows a journalist or news photographer to be compelled to disclose information if it is needed to substantiate a civil claim or corroborate a criminal defense and cannot be obtained any other way — but only after a hearing and other due process. This protects citizens’ right to a fair trial and discovery of important evidence, without empowering government harassment.

However, Section E of the bill is both confusing and unnecessary. It would withhold a shield from journalists who were eyewitnesses to a crime or harmful act. In such cases, journalists’ disclosures would be covered by Section C if they were necessary for justice. If they weren’t needed, then there is no reason to have Section E, which would invite endless litigation and should be dropped from the bill.

In effect, Section E as portrayed by the editors seem to keep the bill from having a significant effect. The Chronicle editors, of course, want to create a new class of persons that can only be compelled to disclose information in extremely narrow circumstances, so they don’t much like Section E.

Amusingly, they go so far as to contend they aren’t advocating the creation of a new class with special privileges:

The bill would not create a special class of persons. Journalism is an activity open to anyone with a copier or Web site. The bill stipulates only that the journalism must be disseminated, drawing the distinction between reporters and commentators, and diarists and people who merely agree to keep a secret.

Journalist? Disseminated? How in the world are those terms defined, and who will enjoy these new protections?

One suspects that it somehow will be interpreted to mean that professional “journalists” who are part of dinosaur media will enjoy new privileges, but people with copiers or blogs will somehow be excluded from this elite group.

It’s sad that these editorial idealists can’t even bring themselves to be honest that they are advocating special privileges for “journalists.” It’s just as sad they chose to mischaracterize the Plame affair in support of their advocacy. In my view, these are the sorts of journalists who need more scrutiny, not more privileges.

ANNE LINEHAN ADDS: Here’s the proposed bill. It is so poorly worded that who knows how it would be interpreted:

(1) “Journalist” means a person, or an employee, independent contractor, or agent of that person, engaged in the business of gathering, compiling, writing, editing, photographing, recording, or processing information for dissemination by any news medium.

(2) “News medium” means a person who in the ordinary course of business publishes, broadcasts, or otherwise disseminates news by print, television, radio, or other electronic means accessible to the public.

Who defines journalist, disseminate or news medium? Bloggers gather, compile, write, edit, etc., so are we journalists? And blogs often offer news, in addition to opinion, through an electronic means that is accessible to the public, so are blogs considered a news medium? And then there’s disseminate. My online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines disseminate as, “to spread abroad as though sowing seed.” Blogs can have a big reach. Much bigger than some newspapers. I am fairly certain that Instapundit or Daily Kos have a greater dissemination than many print newspapers.

Journalists are not like lawyers or doctors in that there is no licensing body. The First Amendment’s guarantee of free speech means it’s for ALL Americans, not just a self-defined select group.

The editors say, “The bill stipulates only that the journalism must be disseminated, drawing the distinction between reporters and commentators […]” Where does the bill draw a distinction between reporters and commentators? What do the editors mean by commentators? Does that mean Rick Casey is covered or not covered? What about Maureen Dowd? What about George Stephanopoulos? Is Jeff Gannon/Guckert a journalist or a commentator?

Who decides? Who defines?

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Kevin Whited is co-founder and publisher of blogHOUSTON. Follow him on twitter: @PubliusTX