Sunday, June 20, 2010

A License to Silence

There's a new addition to the list of really bad ideas, joining such favorites as leisure suits, wine in a box and football stadiums in the city of Industry.

This one comes from a Michigan lawmaker who wants to register journalists to ensure, among other things, that they possess "good moral character."

Republican state Sen. Bruce Patterson recently introduced a bill that would require everyone from bureau chiefs to bloggers to possess a journalism degree or other degrees substantially equivalent.

In addition, they would:

Have not less than three years experience as a reporter or any other relevant background information.

Possess awards or recognition related to being a reporter.

Submit three or more writing samples.

And as an added incentive, those who register would have to pay a fee.

Forget about the fact that Patterson, who describes himself as a "constitutional attorney," is engaged in a bit of academic self-loathing. After all, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States prohibits the making of any law infringing on the freedom of speech or freedom of the press.

Forget the fact that a politician has the temerity to claim the moral high ground and sit in judgment of others.

Forget that there are libel laws and the court of public opinion to hold journalists in check.

Forget that I would qualify to cover Mr. Patterson, depending on who is deciding the
Advertisement "good moral character" question.

This proposed legislation is wrong on so many levels.

OK, I can hear you asking, we register barbers, plumbers and cab drivers. Why not reporters?

First and foremost, it would be open to abuses that go far beyond a bad haircut or a leaky pipe.

Simply put, it would give a government the tools to silence those who are critical of it by denying or revoking their "license." And when it comes to covering politics, no news is bad news.

Think that's far fetched?

Remember Richard Nixon's "Enemies List?" It was populated by a considerable number of reporters and editors. Less subtle but equally Draconian were the rulers of Communist Romania, who registered and licensed typewriters, to be confiscated if the writer offended the government.

Then there's that "moral character" issue. Whose moral character is the benchmark? John Wooden? Or Tiger Woods? And who is applying that standard? As Oscar Wilde once said, "Morality is simply the attitude we adopt toward people whom we personally dislike."

Journalism degrees? In my last editing stop at the Pasadena Star-News, my top reporters had degrees in history, rhetoric, law and divinity. It didn't seem to be a hindrance.

To give Mr. Patterson his due, the journalistic landscape is a lot more confounding than it used to be. In addition to the mainstream press, there are myriad bloggers, tweeters, Facebookers and other "citizen journalists" at work.

Do an Internet search on Barack Obama or Sarah Palin or Manny Ramirez and you'll find thousands of articles written from dozens of perspectives. It's soap box oratory gone electronic.

But it apparently has confused Patterson.

"What's the definition of a reporter? I haven't been able to find out? What's a reporter? What's a journalist?" he asked. "I thought you had to have a degree in journalism, but apparently not. I could retire and be a journalist."

You could, Mr. Patterson, but after this bit of legislative sleight of hand, I doubt if you'd get a lot of job offers.

I've got a better idea. Instead of registering journalists, let's register politicians.

Let's require them to be of high moral character, although Eliot Spitzer, Mark Sanford, Bill Clinton and Larry Craig might have trouble making the cut.

Let's require them to have a degree in ethics or the equivalent.

Let's have them submit three samples of intelligent legislation, free from lobbyist influence and back-room deal making.

Let's require transparency.

If we adopted those standards, there would be no need to muzzle journalists.

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