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Friday, August 5, 2005

Smokey Briggs

Sage Views

By Smokey Briggs

Elitist journalists and
their special desires

There are days when I have genuine contempt for many of the people in my profession. Sometimes I feel like the proverbial honest hooker.

The recent and ongoing debate concerning special rights for “journalists” inspires special contempt for many of my news gathering brethren.

In short, my journalistic colleagues want special protections - protections that mere citizens do not have.

Their arguments for special treatment reek of hypocrisy, elitism, and stupidity.

Specifically, what these journalist want is a right not to reveal their “confidential” sources - even when these sources are part of a criminal investigation.

Well, really they have that right - but the courts have the reciprocal right to toss the reporter in jail and the reporters do not like that.

There are a couple of staple arguments that are used to support the finding of this special privilege.

The first is invariably the First Amendment provision that “Congress shall make no law…. abridging the freedom of the press.”

Journalists are big on the First Amendment.

Somehow, they reason that those few words should be read to create special status for reporters when they are hauled before a grand jury.

I’m don’t think the best word-butchering lawyer in the world could wring such a message for those few words.

But the real issue runs deeper and here is where the elitism and hypocrisy of my brethren really shows through. The question that reveals their true colors is this:

Who is the “press?”

There is no definition of “the press” within the Constitution. How do you become a member of “the press?” Do you have to work for a newspaper? A television news team? How about an Internet news site? Could you open your own newspaper and suddenly become a member of the press?

Of course, what my brethren really mean is “The Established Press.” What they really mean is “Us.” What they mean is “Us elite guys.”

And they are wrong. The press is any American citizen with pen and paper, or computer and disk, or camera and voice. It is any citizen with the desire to gather information. That was who it was when the Constitution was written and nothing has changed.

Of course, my brethren don’t like this definition because it takes away their “specialness.”

They also don’t like it because it shoots the whole First Amendment argument for special privileges for reporters down in flames.

But, there is another step.

Even without the First Amendment my brethren argue, and successfully, that a law shielding them from having to reveal secret sources is good for society.

They get better stories about important stuff and society is better off for knowing even if the source remains a secret.

That may be true occasionally.

But such a law will always undermine the First Amendment provisions that protect them from government interference in the first place, and that is what makes my brethren stupid.


Because such a law will still require that we legally define “the press.” Who will define it?

Governments - the exact institutions that the First Amendment is supposed to protect us from.

Few of my colleagues see the problem with letting governments define “the press?”

But what happens when federal, state or local governments get to define “the press?” Logically, government then controls who is, and who is not, “the press.”

The next step is a government issued I.D. card - something we recently got rid of here in Texas.

And what happens when you tick your local or state or federal bureaucrat off? Well, you just might lose your status as “press.”

What happens to the independent man or woman mounting an investigation of their own because they think “the press” is corrupt or lazy or useless?

They lose the protections of the First Amendment - because by definition they are not the press and the First Amendment provision they are relying on protects the press, not the people.

It is a bad argument folks. It is the easy way out - but it is not a good way out.

The damage done to the Constitutional freedoms that are our right is not worth the occasional benefit to society that my brethren argue for.

A better law might be one that simply allowed all citizens to opt out of being questioned by a grand jury or a prosecutor. (Somehow, I don’t see the law and order crowd being too keen on such a law).

The press is a guy with a pen and some curiosity. The day we change that to “a guy that works for a newspaper” we have taken a long step backward into the days of government censorship.

No thanks, I’ll take my chances with the grand jury - or what the heck, maybe I’ll just find a source that can stand up and tell the truth in broad daylight.

Now there is an interesting idea.

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