Licensing reporters and journalists

A hundred years ago, or even twenty years ago, no one would have seriously discussed the idea of licensing journalists and reporters. They also wouldn’t have attempted to define them in a legal sense.

One of the biggest reasons is that only a handful of media companies held power. They could control the national dialogue and act as gatekeepers as to what is considered newsworthy or not. But with the rise of the blogger and the citizen journalist and the alternative media,  this has been unraveling quickly. No longer do people have to go to traditional print newspapers or cable news stations for their news. They can access content from independent people. These people may or may not have to answer to advertisers. In short, no one is pulling their strings, save for their own possible biases and prejudice – which is no different from any other news outlet.

The natural right to write

It’s no secret that politicians, particularly in D.C., hate alternative media. Sites like antiwar.com, lewrockwell.com, Pro Libertate, and Infowars.com write either on topics they don’t want discussed or from a perspective they want suppressed. Censorship, whether direct or indirect, is seen as the solution.

As a reporter, I differentiate myself and other reporters from people who merely blog on news but don’t do any original reporting. But the difference is defined by what constitutes a reporter in an actual sense, not as a legal definition. Legally, I see no difference between what I do and what they do. Both the reporter and the blogger have the right to write what they wish.

What’s amazing is how many people I’ve come across who have expressed support for or interest in requiring a license to be a reporter.

Their argument is always the same: People are allowed to say whatever they want and pass it off as journalism. Anyone can claim to be a journalist. All they need is a camera, a notepad, a pencil, or access to the Internet.

My reply is also always the same: It is a natural right to write what they desire. And that’s the beauty of it. Anyone can report on what is happening around them. Do you really want the government deciding who gets to write and who doesn’t? (This argument puts aside the First Amendment).

Some of the time, those with whom I have this debate understand the flaw in their argument. If government gets to decide who is allowed to be a reporter, they will set it up so that only people they approve of receive a license. Also, what if the reporter writes something the government doesn’t want? They have the ability to revoke a person’s journalism license and therefore can wield it as a weapon against people who don’t report a story the way they want.

Others, however, have a very naïve, trusting view of government that borders on the religious. They also cite licensing for doctors, lawyers, and other professions to justify licensing reporters. After all, we don’t want people running around being able to practice medicine without a license?

This argument falls apart, however, when I point out that doctors still have their licenses revoked and that they must purchase expensive malpractice insurance in the event they are sued. If licensing is supposed to protect the consumer from bad doctors, why is it necessary for them to get insurance and how come doctors still get their licenses revoked?

Additionally, I point out that we must receive driver’s licenses before we can drive, yet how many bad drivers are there out on the road? I live in the Seattle area, and for whatever reason, drivers cannot seem to grasp the concept of increasing their speed as they go from an on-ramp onto the highway.

Roughly 35,000 people died last year on interstate highways. It is a commonly accepted belief that teenagers are reckless drivers, even when they get their license. Drivers constantly drive with either a license suspended or revoked. Yet we still think people should get licenses because it makes us safer.

Defining a “reporter”

The problem is, the notion that people should have to get a license to become a reporter isn’t just a hypothetical discussion between professionals. The courts have already attempted to place restrictions on what constitutes a reporter or journalist in the eyes of the law. Among the requirements, according to this judge, is to have a journalism degree and “contacting “the other side” to get both sides of a story.”

Fred Reed, a retired Marine and former Washington Times crime beat reporter (who also didn’t get a journalism degree), destroys these two requirements and the others in one of his many witty columns. I feel no need to add to it.

There is a related issue that needs to be differentiated in the debate, and that is whether or not bloggers can create their own valid press credentials. Press credentials are not, or should not, be construed to give a reporter a higher legal status. They do not give a reporter their First Amendment rights. They allow journalists into areas or places that ordinary people would not be allowed in, such as behind the yellow tape at a crime scene or at privately-held conventions. From that perspective, it should be up to the entity in question to decide whether to respect those credentials, because want they do is provide privileges, such as the right to watch a movie for free in order to review it. Press credentials help provide context and identify a reporter to those who may not know who they are. I often go out and take pictures for my newspaper, and I wear my press pass at all times so people know who I am and why I am taking photos of strangers.

Differentiation needs to occur when discussing private versus public events. Private organizations and businesses have a right to discriminate based on what they consider to be valid press credentials.

Public events, however, are a different matter, such as when this Infowars reporter was kept away from Nancy Pelosi during a press conference on illegal immigration and was forced to shout his questions at her at a distance because his credentials were not deemed valid.

Politicians obviously only want reporters who are going to act as stenographers and record everything they say and not ask tough questions or challenge their claims, so if they have the power to filter out anyone who holds them accountable, they will.

Why censorship, even censorship by any other name, is inevitable

At some point, they will try to introduce a license as a part of their efforts towards censorship. In February it was discovered the FCC had plans to place employees in newsrooms to monitor how stories were gathered – a plan so radical even the commissioner himself openly opposed it.

But the fact is censorship has already occurred in radio since the early 1900’s through the Radio Act of 1927. Rather than allow for private ownership of radio, the federal government nationalized the airwaves and thus subjected them to censorship under “equal time” rules. This is where we got the whole “fairness doctrine.”

In a lecture titled “Conservation and Property Rights,” Murray Rothbard explains at 36:17 that because government controls the airwaves they can require licenses to broadcast, thus granting them de facto censorship powers.

The reason why censorship is inevitable is because the public will demand it. People have always been intolerant of others’ views, but in the past they’ve had to maintain the pretense of supporting free speech. With the invention of Orwellian words like “hate speech,” it’s easy to justify shutting people up whose speech isn’t popular.

As I see it, there are a variety of ways this de facto censorship via the press can occur. The most obvious is for Congress to pass a bill into law that requires a license to work as a reporter and have its constitutionality upheld by the Supreme Court. The one complication with this method, however, is that it is blatant and direct, and government is most effective in controlling people when they use subtle tactics under which they can maintain pretenses.

The more indirect possibility is to put a myriad of restrictions, regulations, and taxes in place so that it is very difficult for people to blog or report and turn a profit through online advertising, giving an advantage to large corporations when attempting to navigate the byzantine rules.

What’s fascinating, and why I believe censorship is around the corner, is that few people I speak with seem to think licensing reporters or journalists is either wrong or violates the First Amendment.

As a libertarian myself, it’s beside the point. As long as you are not violating anyone’s rights, you are free to do with your property as you see fit, First Amendment or not.

One might naturally find it hard to envision a scenario where Congress could ever get away with passing bill requiring a license to exercise freedom of the press. The language of the First Amendment is fairly unambiguous: Congress should make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.

Yet, one only need look at the plain language of the Second Amendment: the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. Observe we still have plenty of laws regulating the ownership and possession of weapons by individuals.

No one will ever call it censorship, of course. As I have already said, all one has to do is label else’s beliefs or statements as “hate speech” and claim “hate speech isn’t free speech” and no one will protest out of fear of being declared guilty by association. In a society where government aggression and coercion is regarded as the first and foremost solution to any dilemma one encounters, people have absolutely no qualms allowing the State to squash differing opinions and publications.

I used to be among them. In college, I argued for censorship under certain circumstances, believing it was necessary. But then I realized that it was far better to allow terrible and evil things to be said than to give the government the power to decide who gets to speak and who doesn’t. History showed me that no nation ever suffered from tyranny and oppression due to too much free speech.

Although I run the risk of sounding cynical, it is my sincere belief that if the government undertook action tomorrow to shut down websites and cable news stations merely because they contained undesired content, a very large segment of the population would happily cheer. Not for a moment would they wonder if the action amounted to censorship or if giving government such power is prudent. The other half would protest but little else would be done.

State Licenses and their abuses

If you’re wondering how we got to this point, look no further than the concept of a State-issued license. It is based on the belief that the State needs to license people before they can engage in a certain career or trade.

Put another way, the premise of a license is that you do not have a natural right to do something. You must receive permission from the State and satisfy their demands before you can work a trade.

I am not arguing that people should not go through a formal education or be trained properly for their career. Nor am I saying people shouldn’t get a license, provided it is private and voluntary.

From a libertarian point of view, if a licensing program is voluntary and private, it does not violate someone’s rights and is therefore not an act of aggression or coercion. When the State demands that you get a license, however, coercion and threats of violence are involved.

If licenses were private, it would be an additional credential and indicate how well someone is able to perform a job. Unlike the State, a private license program has an incentive to maintain the quality of their curriculum and ensure those who receive a license deserve it, because if it means little to a potential customer or employer no one will bother to get their license and they go out of business.

Legally, anyone should be allowed to practice medicine or law. The free market would weed out bad lawyers and bad doctors, as it already does.

The only reason people can entertain the possibility of licensing reporters or restricting who qualifies as one, in direct contradiction of the First Amendment, is due to the flawed premise that the government can decide what trades, careers, and professions need to be licensed.

In 2012, the Institute for Justice issued a report on the rising number of jobs that require a license. Some of them are more absurd than others (all states require a license to be a manicurist), but that is irrelevant. Once you accept that State-issued licenses improve the quality of a profession and protect the consumer from harm, then it is impossibility to protect any industry from being licensed, including reporters.

Reality check: Journalism has never been “objective”

I find it strange that people who justify licensing claim that bloggers and other writers online are ruining journalism because they write “whatever want,” or that they print inaccuracies and “misinformation.”

The age of objective journalism is as much a myth as the Wild West and the Dark Ages. There never was and will never be a “non-biased” media. There was also never a time in our nation’s history when newspapers were considered objective. Through the late 1700’s and 1800’s, newspaper openly took one side of an issue, whether it was the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, or the War Between the States.

And they got their facts wrong, too. One newspaper reported Davy Crockett hadn’t died at the Alamo. After the Titanic sunk, newspapers claimed all aboard were safe. Yellow journalism and the tabloid press in the days of William Randolph Hearst directly led to a war with Spain in Cuba and the Philippines.

In the 1930’s, Walter Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for his (mis)reporting on the Soviet Union, which included covering up the fact that they starved millions of Ukrainians. Other American journalists later whitewashed Stalin’s show trials. The Pulitzer Board never revoked Duranty’s prize.

Recently, a CNN reporter quit after she was pressured to stop reporting on crimes committed in a Middle Eastern country, and a CBS journalist resigned after her network apparently bowed to pressure from the White House to cease covering the Benghazi scandal.

Therefore, let us not pretend that having a journalism degree and working for a corporately-run media outlet makes one a legitimate reporter anyone than writing about an issue out of a basement.

Journalism has never been nor will ever become wholly objective, and the government licensing journalism as a career won’t change that. Turkey, for example, licenses journalists. Does anyone actually believe their reporting is more accurate on their government than ours is?

In 2010, the Center for International Media Assistance published a report on the practice of licensing journalists. The report’s author, Steve Strasser, made the following conclusion:

Although governments may feel that only they can give the answer, the ultimate principle must be clear: To the extent government licensing policies interfere with a free press, they also damage freedom of expression. This study concludes that organizations of journalists themselves are best equipped to regulate the ethical and professional standards of journalism, whether in the old media or the new. Media laws in particular need rethinking. In many developing countries, the laws on licensing must be brought into line with international conventions on free expression. Most laws still do not include formal restrictions on Internet journalism—and it should stay that way.

For me, this whole debate served as inspiration for my science fiction novel which is still being edited in preparation for publication. During the editing process I introduced a new plot element whereby journalists in the future (roughly 2060) have to obtain a permit, then a temporary license when they become an apprentice at a news site, and then they must study and take an exam to receive their license. Much of the animosity they reserve for “newspaper gangs” are that they have unlicensed reporters running around writing “whatever they want.”

What’s sad is it’s one of the few plot elements in the story that hasn’t already happened in some degree in America, though it certainly is taking place all over the world.

If only those who favored censorship would simply come out with it and state their true motive. The real justification for licensing reporters and journalists is so that government and those with political connections can silence any dissenting speech. Through licensing they can control the press, control information, and decide who has the privilege of reporting.

Ultimately, if we in America allow our government to pass a law requiring licenses to act as a reporter and write stories, it’s because we first allowed them to license other professions under the same rationale.

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2 Responses to Licensing reporters and journalists

  1. greattomato says:

    Regarding the “professions” — that is, doctors, lawyers, and the like — licensing is internally regulated by those professions but you technically could practice the law or medicine without a license. Then professions regulate themselves in much the same way corporations champion patent law and high barriers to entry.

    Like

  2. greattomato says:

    Obviously your argument still stand just slightly tweaked. Professional associations are trusts and as such, a libertarian government would be dutied to outlaw such a combination that has the express goal of protecting members from market forces

    Like

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