The constitutional protections guaranteed in the First Amendment apply to all citizens. Everybody has freedom to practice religion as they see fit and to speak freely. It might come as a surprise to the media establishment and even government legislators that the First Amendment protection for freedom of the press also applies to all Americans. Basically, every American is a member of the press.
When government bestows special status and privileges to “journalists” that aren’t provided for all citizens, the nation enters the dangerous realm of press exceptionalism. That’s the notion that journalists play such a unique role in American democracy that they need to be on pedestals. The problem is that journalists can’t be surrogates of rank and file Americans when they are being bought off and compromised by governmental entities privileging the reportorial class.
The journalism industry is being made part of the establishment by an increasing flow of government enticements. The Biden Administration’s Local Journalism Sustainability Act is part of the Build Back Better package. It is working its way through Congress now. The bill helps fund payroll expenses of news outlets, and generates revenue for those outlets by giving tax incentives to advertisers and subscribers. This ill-conceived legislation is super-charged press exceptionalism that will take the teeth out of the press’ historic watchdog role.
The news industry, indeed, does have financial challenges and media executives should well figure out how to keep their failing operations out of red ink. But that’s not the issue here. The issue is how a watchdog press can aggressively hold the government accountable when it is being soothed and distracted by government doggie treats. News coverage of Biden’s spending package is now necessarily compromised since news organizations stand to benefit from its passage. Journalists and politicians have historically kept an arms-length, and at times adversarial, relationship. Journalism executives should recognize government handouts for precisely what they are – attempts to maneuver and manipulate press sympathies to the government’s advantage.
States also want to patronize and exploit the media with special perks. California’s Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed a new law that gives reporters unfettered access to demonstrations and protests otherwise closed off by the police. Never mind that there might be legitimate security concerns when police close off a protest or that the mere presence of media can exacerbate demonstrations often designed specifically for press attention.
Even Facebook wants to get in on the press exceptionalism act. The social media giant has increased its protections of journalists from online harassment, shielding journalists in ways other figures in the public arena are not. Any online harassment is inappropriate, of course, but journalists deserve no more protection than anybody else who works in the public eye.
Essentially, all citizens can declare themselves journalists on their own say-so. They can then gather and disseminate news and commentary through whatever means they can manage to access. That’s exactly what the constitutional framers had in mind. The Internet era makes publishing easy. Regular citizens don’t need a printing press or a broadcast license to serve as journalists.
Constitutionally, people who get paid to do journalism or work for media organizations aren’t special or any better than anybody else. But every time the government provides financial benefits or special access for journalists, there must follow a formal definition of who qualifies as a journalist to get the exclusive goodies. That leaves out all citizen journalists, of course, who are well-empowered today with newsgathering capability on their smartphones. Special perks for certain anointed journalists separates them from the very citizenry they are supposed to be serving and makes them beholden to the government structures handing out those perks.
The late Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart gave an address at Yale in 1974 in which he touted the important role a free press plays in American democracy. He also explained that an autonomous press should not expect government help as it executes its role.
Instead of looking for government favors, the press would be better off to focus on improving the service it was designed to provide for news consumers. Credibility ratings for the press are near record lows. In a November Rasmussen Reports study, respondents overwhelmingly reported they do not trust the political reporting they get from their supposed press surrogates. Public respect and prestige will be bestowed on the press when it is earned. That should mean more to the journalism industry than any handouts coming from powerful government or corporate interests. News industry leaders should reject shameful government handouts (bribes) and fight for the autonomy the constitutional framers envisioned.
Jeffrey M. McCall is a Professor of Communication at DePauw University. He is a recognized authority on media and journalistic ethics and standards, having been interviewed and quoted by over 125 newspapers. He has made over a hundred appearances on radio and television shows. He is a contributing op-ed columnist on contemporary media issues, and is the author of the book "Viewer Discretion Advised: Taking Control of Mass Media Influences."