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Why “Members of the News Media” Should Welcome a Shield for the Act of Journalism

July 15, 2013

From emptywheel

As I noted in this piece, the new policies DOJ rolled out in the wake of the AP and James Rosen revelations applies explicitly to “members of the news media,” not journalists per se. The definition might permit the exclusion of bloggers and book writers, not to mention publishers like WikiLeaks.

I’ve been asked what I think a better solution is. My answer is to define — and then protect — the act of journalism, not the news media per se.

That approach would have several advantages over protecting “the news media.” First, by protecting the act of journalism, you include those independent reporters who are unquestioningly engaging in journalism (overcoming the blogger question I laid out, but also those working independently on book projects, and potentially — though this would be a contentious though much needed debate — publishers like WikiLeaks), but also exclude those news personalities who are engaging in entertainment, corporate propaganda, or government disinformation.

But protecting the act of journalism rather than “news media” would also serve to exclude another group that should have limited protection. Included within DOJ’s definition of those it is protecting here are not just the reporters who work for the news media, but also the managers.

“News media” includes persons and organizations that gather, report or publish news, whether through traditional means (e.g., newspapers, radio, magazines, news service) or the on-line or wireless equivalent. A “member of the media” is a person who gathers, reports, or publishes news through the news media.

While I absolutely agree that, say, AP’s editors should have had their phone records protected as they contemplated withholding the UndieBomb 2.0 story after the White House request (those records were included in the subpoena) — that is, as they engaged in a journalistic role. That would protect any discussions they had with sources or other experts to challenge the government’s claim about damage, for example. But the communications of a Tim Russert being pressured after the fact about a critical story by the Vice President’s Chief of Staff should not be protected. Nor should WaPo CEO Katharine Weymouth’s discussions with huge donors like Pete Peterson or potential salon sponsors. While I suspect DOJ sees real benefit in protecting these cocktail weenie means of pressure on news media (as do, undoubtedly, some of the executives involved), I see no journalistic reason to do so.

Moreover, in an era where WaPo is really a testing firm with a journalistic rump and NBC is really the TV content wing of a cable supplier, should we really be protecting the “news media” with no limits? (Bloomberg, I think, presents the most fascinating question here, particularly given their recent spying on users of Bloomberg terminals; where does the journalistic protection for companies that primarily provide privatized information begin and end?)

But even within the scope of Friday’s guidelines, there’s a reason the members of the news media should favor protecting the act of journalism rather than membership in news media.

That’s because two of the most important passages in the new News Media Policies refer to newsgathering activities as a further modification to its otherwise consistent discussion of members of the news media. The phrase appears in what amounts to a mission statement describing why this issue is important. Read the rest of the story at emptywheel.

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From → Analysis, Commentary

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