September 14, 2013

TITLES OF NOBILITY: James Taranto on the Senate’s Definition of Journalism:

To answer the question our July headline posed, this column is “legitimate,” since there’s no question our employer is “an entity that disseminates news or information.” In fact, if we left The Wall Street Journal and retired to Florida tomorrow, we would continue to enjoy the privilege (if it is enacted) until 2033–and longer if we only went into semiretirement and continued to work professionally on a freelance or part-time basis.

The idea of extending the privilege to retired and semiretired journalists as well as active full-timers seems unobjectionable. But what about ex-journalists who switch to a nonjournalistic field? Jay Carney started his journalistic career in Florida and was an employee of Time magazine for well over a year (indeed, nearly 20) before he went to work for Vice President-elect Biden in 2008. It seems odd that the White House press secretary would qualify as a “covered journalist,” but apparently Carney would, for the remainder of the Obama administration and until 2028.

Carney is not alone. His erstwhile Time colleague Rick Stengel also plans to leave journalism for government; he has been nominated to serve as undersecretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs–Foggy Bottom’s top flack. The Atlantic’s Elspeth Reeve reports that if confirmed, Stengel would be “at least the 15th reporter to go to work for the Obama administration.”

While it’s likely that more journalists go into government under Democratic administrations, the revolving door operates during Republican ones as well. The late Tony Snow became George W. Bush’s press secretary in 2006-07 after a long career in journalism, and several journalists we know did stints in the Bush White House’s speechwriting shop. Many private-sector public-relations practitioners are also former journalists, and one could argue that a PR firm is as much an “entity that disseminates news or information” as is a newspaper or broadcast station.

The bigger problem with the proposed definition is that, like most government regulations, it would give an advantage to established corporate players over challengers. That is to say, it would create a barrier to entry. Whereas a newspaper or TV reporter’s promises of confidentiality would be backed by the authority of the federal government, those of an upstart blogger or pamphleteer would not.

It’s crony constitutionalism. The First Amendment isn’t about freedom for the institutional press — it’s about freedom to publish. It’s a lousy law, designed to reward insiders and marginalize outsiders.

UPDATE: Reader Lee Murrah writes: “Under the proposed definition of journalist, Thomas Paine would not have qualified.” Yes. I don’t think that’s by accident.