Unexamined Premises

Licensed to Smooch


An order, not a suggestion

So Eric Holder’s Justice Department has just issued new guidelines for the federal government’s treatment of journalists. I’ll wait a minute while that sinks in …

That’s right: in a clear violation of the spirit, if not the letter, of the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights, a branch of the U.S. government is making policy regarding its treatment of the “press”:

The Justice Department on Friday announced changes to how it will conduct investigations of leaks of classified information to reporters, making it more difficult for prosecutors to obtain journalists’ phone records and other private information without giving news organizations advance notice….

According to the rule changes, the government will no longer be able to pursue a reporter as a co-conspirator in a criminal leak as a way to get around a legal bar on secret search warrants for reporting materials.

That tactic was used in the FBI’s argument in the Fox News case. Specifically, an affidavit filed in the case by an FBI agent said Rosen may have acted as “an aider, abettor and/or co-conspirator” in the leak of classified information to the government’s main target in the investigation, a State Department official.

In addition, under the new rules, a search warrant can no longer be issued if the reporter is engaged in ordinary news gathering activities and if the individual is not the explicit target of the investigation. Court documents suggested that Rosen used flattery to coax the information out of the government official who leaked him documents. Such behavior would presumably fall under the ordinary news gathering provision.

Another change in the guidelines would make it more difficult for prosecutors to obtain a reporter’s calling records without giving the news organization advance notice.

Well, thank you very much. But note a hidden caveat: the use of the word “news organizations.” As the Instapundit, Glenn Reynolds, notes:

Does this policy protect anyone doing journalism, or just members of the establishment? The Justice Department talks about protection for “news media” (the guidelines don’t use the word “press”) but doesn’t provide any guidance on just who that is. Presumably, if you’re drawing a paycheck from the New York Times or Gannett (the parent company of USA TODAY), you’re covered. (But note that, not too long ago, the Obama administration was claiming that Fox News, home of James Rosen, one of the key targets of recent Justice Department snooping, was not a “legitimate news organization.”) If the Justice Department can pick and choose in this fashion, the guidelines don’t mean much.

But even if the guidelines extend to everyone who draws a paycheck as a reporter or pundit — hey, I guess that would include me — that’s still not enough. In this era of blogging, social media and independent journalism, there are an awful lot of people doing serious journalism who aren’t drawing a paycheck from a media organization. They deserve protection, too. Journalism is an activity, not a profession.

Glenn goes on to cite the work of ACORN slayer James O’Keefe, independent “milibloggers” like Michael Yon and J.D. Johannes, and even the anonymous tweeters who first broke the news of the uprising that brought down Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and correctly observes that a system in which only members of “news organizations” (meaning the Legacy Media) are considered real journalists is effectively licensing — a First Amendment prohibition if there ever was one. And for that, you can thank John Milton.


Take your license and shove it

The pamphlet above is the famous Areopagitica, Milton’s broadside against state licensing of individual opinion. (The back story is fascinating.) This epic rant, along with the seminal essays of “Cato” (Trenchard and Gordon) in the 18th century, forms the bedrock upon which the Framers based their notion of individual liberty. The great poet of Paradise Lost certainly pulled no punches:

Good and evil we know in the field of this world grow up together almost inseparably; and the knowledge of good is so involved and interwoven with the knowledge of evil, and in so many cunning resemblances hardly to be discerned, that those confused seeds which were imposed upon Psyche as an incessant labour to cull out and sort asunder, were not more intermixed. It was from out the rind of one apple tasted that the knowledge of good and evil, as two twins cleaving together, leaped forth into the world. And perhaps this is that doom which Adam fell into of knowing good and evil, that is to say of knowing good by evil.

And how can a man teach with authority, which is the life of teaching, how can he be a doctor in his book as he ought to be, or else had better be silent, whenas all he teaches, all he delivers, is but under the tuition, under the correction of his patriarchal licenser, to blot or alter what precisely accords not with the hidebound humour which he calls his judgment? — when every acute reader, upon the first sight of a pedantic license, will be ready with these like words to ding the book a quoit’s distance from him …

Translation: good can only be discerned in the presence of evil, and truth is impossible to discover when it’s being dictated from the top down. Here’s a trenchant observation from “Cato”:

Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech: Which is the right of every man, as far as by it he does not hurt and control the right of another; and this is the only check which it ought to suffer, the only bounds which it ought to know.

This sacred privilege is so essential to free government, that the security of property; and the freedom of speech, always go together; and in those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call any thing else his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of the nation, must begin by subduing the freedom of speech; a thing terrible to publick traitors.

As Milton famously asserted:

I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.

And that’s the problem in a nutshell. How do we believe a word of anything we read (or hear or see) from the Licensed Media (or the “state-run media,” as Rush calls them) if they are not counter-balanced by the Non-State-Run Media? “Trust us, we’re professionals” is not exactly reassuring given their recent track record as information falsifiers and administration cheerleaders.

The Obama regime, for whom too much is never enough, blundered badly by rifling through the Associated Press’s telephone records; David Axelrod’s crew obviously assumed that their “friends” in the MSM would stay friendly even if and when the administration double-crossed them. They were surprised when the sheep bit back, however mildly.

At the same time, as I wrote here a few days ago:

I do not think “citizen journalism” is necessarily the miracle cure some consider it to be. I spent a year conceiving and executing the website Big Journalism with, and for, [the late Andrew] Breitbart, and my greatest difficulty there was trying to make him see that not everything about traditional journalism was a leftist plot. (I totally failed.) Today there remain some websites on the right that I simply do not either believe or trust, and I expect you can figure out which ones those are: they are marked by amateurish writing, shoddy reporting, and misapprehension of facts and circumstances that more experienced hands would instantly grasp. Further, there is something called “news judgment” — what is and what is not a story, which varies from editor to editor but which is vital to any institution, from the New York Times down to the lowliest blog, for it to have any credibility and influence.

But that’s the price we pay for returning to a media world that the Founders themselves would very likely recognize: an opinionated, intellectual (and not-so-intellectual) free for all, from which — if you accept Milton’s proposition that truth emerges through the trying — we can begin to discern the outlines of reality. As the saying goes, people tend to believe what they read in the newspaper unless they happen to know something about the event or subject under discussion: then, not so much. But the truth (minus the inexpert witnesses known as journalists and the interested parties known as sources) is out there.

A license to print under the beneficent watchfulness of Washington, though, is simply a license to smooch the bums of the watchers. No wonder folks turn away from “Journalists” with revulsion, and turn to Twitter when something, you know, actually happens. They may be temporarily ignorant, but they’re not stupid.