Thursday, June 6, 2013

We Are All Journalists

Among the things Congress is presently squabbling over is a new media shield law which would serve to help protect journalists and their ability to conceal sources from government.  Of course, "journalist" is a term that's up for grabs these days.  As Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) put it "Who is a journalist is a question we need to ask ourselves.  Is any blogger out there saying anything—do they deserve First Amendment protection? These are the issues of our times."

I'll spot Graham the short-hand on the First Amendment.  Obviously Bloggers are entitled to the free exercise of religion and the right to peaceably speak and assemble.  What Graham is speaking to specifically is the question of what defines "the press."  Are bloggers "press" or just malcontents with keyboards?  Where -- or even can -- we draw a line between speech and journalism in our modern world?

Those who try to do so are missing the point.

When the Bill of Rights was drafted the phrase "the press" did not refer to 24 hour cable news networks nor even the venerable Grey Lady of the New York Times.  The "press" that the founding fathers thought so vital to the protection of liberty was not a cadre of eager SUNY journalism grads gunning to be their generation's Bob Woodward but a rag-tag collection of politically biased and ethically suspect printers whose publications were equal parts tabloid, literary magazine, and political propaganda.  

"Press" in the 1790s looked less like the Washington Post and more like some guy running a conspiracy theory news letter out of his mom's basement.  

The freedom of the press did not seek to ensure the primacy or protection of an elite group of voices but to keep sacrosanct the right to "speak" to the people writ large.. or at least to those that were willing to listen.

Our basement printing presses have gotten a good deal better in the last 20 years.  From disused Xerox machines we have progressed to digital social media that flashes our words - be they essays or 140 character quips - to a global audience of millions.  

But fundamentally a Twitter account or a WordPress blog is much the same thing as Ben Franklin's hand cranked printing press.  Should bloggers have First Amendment protections?  Are bloggers to be considered journalists?  Are Facebook and Twitter users to be considered bloggers? To ask these questions misses the point entirely.  

Constitutional protections do not hinge upon a corporate ID card nor a press pass.  Journalism is not coined in the signing of a check nor is it demarcated by a degree.  Bloggers are entitled to the freedoms of the press because we all are.  

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