Crime

Hats Off to Unofficial Journalism!

The Drudge cast shows how anyone can be a journalist.

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"The notion of wearing a press card in the band of my fedora, the way I saw it done in the movies or in illustrations in comic books, struck me as a wonderful way to live one's life, and I never wanted to be anything else but a reporter with a press card."

–Charles Kuralt, (c)1997 "Interview a Journalist," The Newseum

It was all so easy then.

Walter Lippmann was the reigning columnist, Edward R. Murrow's voice boomed out, "This is London," and on the big screen, Humphrey Bogart played the no-nonsense, hard-drinking, chain-smoking, two-fisted newsman ("journalist" was considered pretentious). No doubt Bogart had a rack full of fedoras.

It was more than enough to inspire Kuralt and a generation of teenagers who dreamed of crusading page-one remakes or romantic foreign assignments in London or Paris, where the job required a trench coat and a fedora.

Now, the big newsrooms are smoke-free environments littered with empty Evian bottles where cigarette butts used to be. The newsmen have been replaced by journalists, or at least reporters, most of whom now are not men.

And instead of the gelatin-print black-and-white clarity of Charles Kuralt's youth, we have the muted ambiguities and confusing convergence of the Internet, where no one knows if you are a dog, let alone a journalist.

So who is a journalist, anyway? And does it matter?

Of course, we recall the world of Kuralt's youth through the gauze of nostalgia and late-night movies. There was considerable confusion then. Edward R. Murrow may have won the awards, but the number-one news program on radio was anchored, as we would say today, by a fast-talking vaudeville entertainer greeting "Mr. and Mrs. America and all the ships at sea." Walter Winchell wore a fedora, but there was spirited debate whether he was a newsman, an entertainer, or just a gossip.

In other words, Walter Winchell was the Matt Drudge of his day.

Matt Drudge, for those who do not follow arcane journalism debates or the annals of libel law, lives in Los Angeles and files reports on the Internet. Just like Winchell, Drudge brings us a fast-paced pastiche of inside gossip, rumor, innuendo, and, oh yes, news. Just like Winchell, Drudge has a big following. Just like Winchell, Drudge is sometimes wrong. So is The New York Times.

But one mistake landed Drudge in serious trouble, on the wrong end of a libel suit. It is not important to know the details of the error, and of Drudge's subsequent admission of error (at the Times, they call it a "correction"). It is important to note that journalists have the protection of the Bill of Rights, and specifically the First Amendment, and the courts have given the media a pretty wide berth to publish or broadcast what editors believe to be the truth, in the public interest.

But Matt Drudge does not have an editor. Matt Drudge does not even claim to be a journalist. In fact, he says he is not a journalist. But he does wear a fedora, at least for his publicity photos.

Does freedom of the press belong to someone who says he is not part of the press? Wait, it gets even more confusing. When Lippmann was writing his column, it appeared in respectable newspapers with professional editors and prominent publishers. When Edward R. Murrow and Walter Winchell were on the radio, they appeared on respectable networks with professional editors (for Murrow, at least), backed by prominent broadcast barons.

But Matt Drudge's work is not in a respectable newspaper or on a national broadcast network. It appears on the Internet. Anyone anywhere in the world can read it. You can link to it via America Online, but the important point is you can link to it from anywhere in the world, for free–Drudge on demand, worldwide.

So when Matt Drudge is sued, who is his publisher?

In the age of the Internet, we are all publishers. Everyone can publish stories good and bad, true or false, over the free worldwide distribution medium of the Internet. You don't need to wear a fedora. You don't even need to go to journalism school.

So how do the courts know who enjoys the constitutional protections of press freedom? The easy, cynical answer used to be that freedom of the press belongs to those who own one. But now we all own one, or we can walk down to the public library, or Kinko's, and use one for free or for a nominal charge.

So if freedom of the press is for those who own one, freedom of the press now protects us all. Of course it always did, but some journalists claimed the First Amendment belonged just to them, not the public, so it is useful for the Internet to have rendered moot that narrow interpretation of the Constitution.

All of which leads to what may be an even more interesting issue: How do governments all over the world know who is licensed to practice journalism?

But wait, you may say, in most countries, and certainly in the United States, journalists are not licensed by the government.

Yes, they are.

If you live in New York City and want to cover that traditional first assignment of cub reporters, the police beat, you will be required to obtain a license from the government.

They call it a press credential.

It is a small shield, renewable annually, and if you don't get it, then you don't get it–the story, that is. There may be 8 million stories in the naked city, but without the government journalism license, you will not be permitted anywhere near the big ones.

For the truly well connected, New York issues special license plates with the letters NYP. This lets you drive your car right up to the scene of a crime, or an election, or Times Square on New Year's Eve. And the city sets aside special NYP zones where only cars with those special government press licenses can park. In New York, where a garage space can rent for more than a small house in some other cities, this is not just a convenience. A favorite game around town is spotting a new NYP zone and guessing who lives nearby.

Surely this is innocuous, some say. The government would not favor one newspaper over another, or one radio station over another.

Guess again.

The New York Times and CBS News could get credentials by the drawer-full for their reporters. But for years the "alternative" newspapers in New York City were denied city licenses–er, credentials. And journalists not employed by one of the big news organizations were almost always out of luck.

So one solution was to let the journalists themselves grant the licenses. And just as with the other self-rating, self-regulating, self-censorship media schemes of the 1990s, the government could say it was not an official government act. The journalists made me do it.

The result is predictable to students of economics: Journalists themselves limit other journalists' access to news stories. Sometimes it has not been pretty.

On Capitol Hill, the licenses–er, credentials–are handed out by the journalists in the press galleries. Until the 1940s, women and minority reporters were barred from covering Congress not by government edict but by the press itself. It took pressure from newly elected minority congressmen to force the white male press galleries to issue licenses to people who did not look like Humphrey Bogart or even wear fedoras.

In more recent memory, Bloomberg Business News was refused credentials to cover most of Washington. Michael Bloomberg delivered his news on computers, not on newsprint or over the air, so he could not be a journalist, or so the argument went. Bloomberg's competitors were in effect keeping a new competitor out of the market.

As Bloomberg tells the story, he finally gave the material from his news service to The New York Times for free, so he could point to his articles in the newspaper. And then everyone said, oh, yes, you must be a journalist, and Bloomberg received his credentials.

Can Matt Drudge get a license to cover the news? Can he get that piece of paper that lets him interview a member of Congress, or a member of the New York City Police Department at a crime scene? Not likely.

So who is a journalist? Whoever the government says is a journalist.

Under certain scenarios, this could also mean the government would decide whether we can ever see the work of those not officially designated as journalists. Here is how it would work:

The Clinton administration has suggested that everyone on the Internet (at least in the United States) should submit to content ratings, all so America's children can be protected from unwanted words and images. To avoid First Amendment problems, journalists would be exempted from the proposed ratings systems. The ratings would be "voluntary," of course, as are the ratings that have been imposed on the television networks–ratings which also exempt journalists.

But who would receive the official "journalist" exemptions from the ratings system? Who is a journalist?

This is not an academic question but a commercial one. Much of the revenue that supports journalism online, as in print and broadcasting, comes from advertisers. The result of losing or not getting the journalism license would be smaller potential audiences, less advertiser interest, lower revenue, and therefore less chance of survival–or existence to begin with. Such a system would in effect be an electronic "prior restraint," a practice that has repeatedly been ruled illegal when the government has tried to use it against newspapers.

On television and online, the mainstream conglomerate news services would of course be classified as news. But on television, Hard Copy, Inside Edition, and other syndicated reality-based programs might not be classified as news. Oops: Inside Edition just won the prestigious George Polk Award for investigative reporting. Back to the drawing board. But Matt Drudge need not apply.

Consider an explicit abuse of the power to license journalists, this one from South Africa 10 years ago, when journalists who opposed apartheid, often grouped under the label "alternative press," were simply refused licenses to report the news. The system was described at a conference of African editors in November by those who'd had firsthand experience with the editors who issued press licenses in the 1980s.

"The alternative press could not get credentials from these `self-regulating' bodies," said Kanthan Pillay, now managing editor of the daily Cape Times of Cape Town. "The overall effect of these regulations on the press was a disaster." When he was challenged by some journalists at the conference, who said journalists should license themselves, just like doctors, Pillay's response drew applause: "The right to express yourself is not part of being a journalist. It is part of being a human being."

You don't even need to wear a fedora.

Adam C. Powell III (apowell@alum.mit.edu) is vice president of technology and programs at The Freedom Forum, a nonpartisan international foundation dedicated to free press and free speech.