We Don’t Need Shield Laws

     Reporters don’t need a shield law.
     I say this as a reporter who has been shot at, threatened, arrested, thrown in jail, lied to, lied about and jacked around for doing my job.
     But reporters do not need, or deserve, any special rights or privileges. We don’t do anything that any other citizen can’t do. We don’t deserve any special protections.
     The Bush administration has bullied, lied to, lied about and thrown reporters in jail without good cause, but they’ve done that to plenty of people.
     The main problem with a shield law – the problem that makes it impossible to enforce fairly – is that there is no fair way to determine who will be protected. Anyone with Internet access can set up a Web page today and call himself a reporter. You can’t license reporters because of the First Amendment. So either everyone will be protected or no one will be protected. So a shield law is useless from Jump Street.
     Journalists are not a professional class because journalism is not a profession. It’s a trade and a service.
     Professionals – such as lawyers and doctors – join groups that regulate their members, who also are regulated by other authorities; attorneys, by their Bar Associations and state supreme courts.
     Journalists, as tradesmen or service workers, in plain truth, have no standards, unless it’s what their boss says it is.
I’m talking about reality now.
     So long as newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation do not violate defamation laws, they are free to be trashy, stupid and perverted – and they are.
     Murdoch’s Fox News Network is free to be dishonest, slimy and nauseating – and it is.
     Gannett Newspapers are free to be cheap, gutless and greedy – and they are.
And the few news organizations that actually do have standards that others pretend to have – companies such as McClatchy and the National Catholic Reporter – are free to be real newspapers.
     Historically, newspapers in the United States were always associated with a political party. Newspapers were founded to promote the party’s interests. The best history of the U.S. newspaper I have read, “Red Blood and Black Ink,” by David Dary, explains this succinctly, with plenty of rollicking examples.
     To the extent that news organizations ever did try to become honest, it was for lack of alternatives. When the telegraph made the modern newspaper possible, The Associated Press found that its reporters did not have time, and the AP did not want to spend the money, to cook up multiple stories and send them out on the wires to serve all the parties’ interests. So the AP did the cheapest thing it could think of: it sent out one version of each story that allegedly played to neither party’s interests.
     It was an accident. It was forced upon them. It was not because of standards or regulations or ideals.
     The thought that a daily newspaper would be honest, serving no political party, did not spring up until Adolph Ochs bought The New York Times in 1896.
     So U.S. newspapers have been forthright liars longer than they’ve pretended to tell the truth. But as Ben Bradlee said, truth has nothing to do with a newspaper. Newspapers report news, not truths. “I’m still trying to figure out how to get truth into a newspaper,” Bradlee said after he retired from The Washington Post, at a lecture I attended.
     It is in the interest of both political parties – particularly a corrupt and vicious one, such as we have today – to set up newspaper reporters as fall guys, as “elitists,” as somehow different from you and me.
     That’s another reason reporters don’t need shield laws.
     Reporters do not attend meetings of Congress, legislatures, city councils and zoning commissions because reporters have special privileges. They do it because you and I don’t have time to do it, or don’t want to do it, but we still want to know what happened.
     Reporters are just citizens doing a job.
     If the U.S. government wants to throw a reporter in jail for doing her job, then the reporter should not get out with a Get Out of Jail Free card. He or she should sit in jail, and the perishing republic should see, every day, what the government is doing. And the republic will see that, because newspapers report when one of their own is thrown in jail by a corrupt, vicious and incompetent government.
     It’s good for people to see reporters thrown in jail. It’s good for this sick republic. Seeing the simple truth – that our government is run by men who are dishonest, corrupt, vicious, incompetent and, in the long run, stupid – is the only way to preserve, or acquire, or recapture freedom.
     Shield laws can’t do it.
     People in the old Soviet Union didn’t need a shield law to keep tabs on and get rid of their corrupt and incompetent government. We don’t need one either.

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