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Michigan Senator introduces bill to register journalists

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June 3, 2010--News Item from Fox News on May 28, 2010 by reporter Jana Winter: A Michigan lawmaker wants to register reporters to ensure they're credible and have "good moral character."


5 Freedom of speech and of press.

Sec. 5.

Every person may freely speak, write, express and publish his views on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of such right; and no law shall be enacted to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.

History: Const. 1963, Art. I, 5, Eff. Jan. 1, 1964
Former Constitution: See Const. 1908, Art. II, 4.

2009 Legislative Council, State of Michigan

What part of the above does alleged constitution lawyer, Sen. Bruce Patterson, not understand? There are legitimate libel and slander laws, as well as the court of public opinion, to check press abuses. The explosive growth of media outlets does not excuse the people from exercising their responsibility of discernment, or give the government permission to exercise it for them.

As someone who has covered controversial topics, especially 9/11, I know that "credibility" is often in the eye of the beholder. Someone who finds Fox News to be credible might not think the same of OpEd News, Online Journal or Indymedia and vice-versa. The beauty of the free press is that diverse outlets exist and people make their own choices among them.

One of the things that reporters would have to show in order to be registered with the State of Michigan under the Patterson bill would be a journalism degree or its equivalent. What is the equivalent? A degree in English, creative writing, quantum physics? A two-year degree, a four-year degree, a certificate from a correspondence school?

I am a community journalist with no journalism degree; my degrees are in economics and law, so maybe I have the equivalent. But the way we write in those fields could never be confused with journalism, so maybe not. I disagree with the implication of this bill that a journalism degree confers credibility. This makes the classist assumption that only people with higher education have the ability to think and write clearly, or report ethically. Some great reporting has been done by students and by non-degreed individuals who took an interest in what was going on in their community. And I still remember the 1976 Democratic National Convention, where "The Children's Express" scooped all the mainstream media on Jimmy Carter's selection of Walter Mondale as his running mate. Most reporting is NOT rocket science.

Another requirement for registration would be 3 years of experience. Why would having three years of experience confer credibility that someone did not have at 2 years and 11 months? You should be taught the ethics either through some sort of schooling, on-the-job training or even self-study, before you go out on your first story. Also, I know that, to many people, the only experience that counts is paid experience. So this bill is basically implying that only people who have the job title of reporter in a corporate outlet count as journalists.

Patterson's concern for ethical standards doesn't wash because such standards can be just as flimsy on the government side, such as when the government tries to force a journalist to reveal a confidential source, embeds reporters with the military in a theater of war or tries to interfere with the confidentiality of the attorney-client relationship.

Some people might view this bill as a simple and logical extension of press credentialing. Perhaps it is, but we should be questioning the legitimacy of press credentialing rather than seeking to further extend the concept. Here in California, press credentials are processed by the California Highway Patrol -- at least, they were several years ago, when I needed them last. A government agency, especially a law enforcement agency, determining who would and who wouldn't be recognized as press, and keeping records of who is credentialed, should be anathema to a society that constitutionally guarantees free press. It should not be business as usual.

They used to say that freedom of the press was for those who can afford one. With the Internet and personal computers, a large portion of the population can now afford it--a problem for those of us trying to make a living in journalism and stuck competing with "free" news. But the "Information Age" also means that now that so many people are in the field, the politicians can't hide so easily, can't have "gentlemen's agreements" with a limited press corps to keep certain scandals under wraps. This scares the pols who depend on journalistic cover during their misdeeds the way cockroaches depend on darkness during a raid on your pantry.

I can see the thinking--and I use that word loosely--behind this bill as the beginning steps down the slippery slope to the day when the government will require all computers to be registered and licensed as in the days typewriters were registered and licensed in communist Romania, to be confiscated if the writer offended the government.

This Michigan bill probably won't fly...yet, or survive a court challenge if it did. But assuming that someday, such a law were to pass somewhere in the states, it might have the opposite effect than what the government intended: No one will believe the registered journalists as anything other than the paid stenographers of the corporatocracy.

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Kellia is a freelance journalist in Oakland, CA who left the Pacifica Radio Network in July, 2010 after 11+ years in the KPFA news department and over 10 years with Free Speech Radio News. She is now in the odd position of needing a paid job while (more...)
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