Everyone a journalist, yes. Shield law for all, no

tn_scott-gant.jpg Washington attorney Scott Gant says “We’re All Journalists” in his new book of the same name that likens bloggers to the revolutionary war pamphleteers and predicts that a more democratic media will transform society.It’s a provocative thesis and one that I’m predisposed to share. Oddly enough, however, I learned of Gant’s book through an e-mail that offered him as an advocate of the proposed federal shield law for reporters (see H. R. 2102 for text of bill).

I do not favor a federal shield law because it sets journalists apart from other citizens and encourage them to rely on sources whose identities and motives cannot be weighed. A better way to bring corruption to light would be to protect whistleblowers. A whistleblower protection bill is crawling through the House — with little or no support from a mass media obsessed with its shield law.

Despite my misgivings about the shield I went looking for Gant’s writing and found a recent Washington Post op-ed article in which he said the most notable thing about the current House shield law is that it:

“adopts a dramatically broader view of journalists — and of journalism. The bill’s safeguards apply to anyone engaged in ‘the gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.’ The sponsors of this legislation resisted calls to regard journalism as something carried out only by employees of established news organizations.”

Gant goes on to tell Post readers that:

“the First Amendment has always been a right and a privilege that belongs to all citizens. Yet the century that preceded the emergence of the World Wide Web appears to have hardened an artificial distinction between professional journalists and everyone else.”

Amen Brother Gant! I’m a newspaper guy who believes as you do in this regard.

But I don’t like this shield bill just because it defines journalist to include bloggers. It’s not that I don’t trust bloggers. It’s that I don’t believe the public should don’t trust so-called professional journalists after the Valerie Plame affair.

That soap opera exposed how the media elite trade whispers and rumors with the government officials they supposedly monitor. That prominent journalists were ordered to reveal their sources is of far less consequence than the fact that they allowed themselves to be used in a slander campaign that helped mislead the United States into the Iraq War.

During the 1970s Watergate scandal the press used anonymous sources to speak truth to power. During this most recent shameful period of the Plame affair, the powerful used anonymity to speak lies as if they were truth — with the complicity of the press.

Journalism is — or should be — about the discovery and arrangement of facts and arguments. The problem with secret sources, and why they should be used rarely, if ever, is that the motives of secret sources cannot be considered by the reader. When a journalist uses a secret source it is the equivalent of saying, “Trust me.” Maybe it’s necessary to do this at times. But it should be rare.

Creating a federal shield law that makes anonymous sourcing a standard part of the journalistic toolkit — and then extending this definition of journalism and protection to every blogger — will accelerate the debasement of journalism, which is losing track of its mission of gathering verifiable facts and sliding into the realm of opinion.