The June 26, 2013 Chicago Sun-Times published an opinion piece from Illinois Senator Dick Durbin entitled “It’s Time to Say Who’s a Real Reporter.”
In his op-ed, Senator Durbin claims concern that Americans who blog, tweet, or disseminate news information through social media outside of the traditional news industry will claim certain qualified legal privileges about the confidentiality of their sources. He thinks this is nonsense:
A journalist gathers information for a media outlet that disseminates the information through a broadly defined “medium” — including newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, magazine, news website, television, radio or motion picture — for public use. This broad definition covers every form of legitimate journalism.
Strangely, Senator Durbin does not cite a specific court case in which a blogger is claiming certain rights to withholding the identity of his or her sources from the government. He mentions the leaking of information to the Associated Press about how the National Security Administration was conducting surveillance activities.
Anticipating a powerful counter-argument to his proposal, Durbin writes, “To those who feel politicians shouldn’t define who a journalist is, I’d remind them that they likely live in one of the 49 states, like Illinois, where elected officials have already made that decision.” This is a logical fallacy called argumentum ad populum – if 49 states have defined a journalist, then defining a journalist must be right. (The web site of the First Amendment Center claims that “39 states and the District of Columbia have shield laws. Courts have provided varying levels of protection in the other states” – see State Shield Statutes & Leading Cases.)
Durbin concludes his op-ed with a statement meant to delude readers into thinking his interest is constitutional protections for journalists: “It’s long past time for Congress to create a federal law that defines and protects journalists.” Actually, his interest is removing potential impediments for the federal government to obtain information about sources from citizens outside of the establishment news media.
Is Senator Durbin justified? I’m not an expert on the constitutional issues of freedom of the press and freedom of speech, but I’m leery.
When someone obtains political power, that person by nature thirsts for absolute control. It’s certainly easier for the government to use financial incentives and police threats to control commercial or state-controlled establishment news media than it is to control one citizen with a computer and web access. Frankly, political bloggers are often hindrances to government officials who want to increase the size and power of government. That’s why I produce the Dayton Public Policy Institute blog.
Political bloggers in California should be aware that the California Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) intends to elaborate on regulations that require campaign committees to specifically identify and report payments to on-line producers of web sites and blogs for certain political purposes. Is this justified? In theory this sounds reasonable, but once again, one suspects that reporting to government will eventually lead to government restrictions that compromise the effectiveness of the activity or suppress the activity altogether.