Only moral journalists need apply

Nobody, including the press, is very happy with the press these days. So state Sen. Bruce Patterson, a man of luxuriant mustaches and florid expressions, came up with an idea: Regulate’ em.

Set up a board to check reporters’ credentials, license them as if they were manicurists or lawyers, and charge them a registration fee. Then issue those who pass muster and pay the state the designation of “Michigan Registered Reporter.” And he introduced a bill (SB 1323) this month to do just that.

Now if you think that sounds like something you might have expected in communist Bulgaria, you’re right. It was enough to give a severe case of apoplexy to any reporter who has heard of the senator’s proposal. Nothing horrifies journalists more than the idea of a state-regulated media.

And they are right about that, too.

Granted, some members of the press have the habit of shouting “the First Amendment,” sometimes inappropriately, any time anybody criticizes anything they want to do. But the idea of a state-regulated media in any way, shape, or form is directly contradictory to the First Amendment, which says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press …”

Professional journalists wisely feel that they are just like everyone else when it comes to freedom of speech: When it comes to the right to report and publish, all men are created equal. True, that can occasionally be irritating to someone like this columnist, for example, who has a master’s degree in journalism and has made a living doing various forms of it for more than 30 years. Most of the time, I hope that what I do is deserving of more respect than a “journalism blog” written by a high school dropout. (Though judging from my mail, not everyone agrees.)

But it is vitally important that legally everyone has the same right to commit journalism, for one simple reason: If any government is allowed to start designating who can be a journalist, it naturally follows that it will also be tempted to say who can’t be one.

To be fair, that’s not at all what Senator Patterson, a term-limited Republican from Canton, a Wayne County suburb, intended. He is not an ignoramus; he has a law degree, a successful career, and has been in the legislature for a decade.

“I mainly just wanted to stimulate discussion,” he told me. “I didn’t think the bill would be likely to pass, but I thought I’d put it out there and if there was any support from your profession, we’d move forward. Heck, I thought it might be helpful to legitmate journalists,” he said.

Indeed, he made some valid points. “There are fewer legitimate reporters who cover the legislature all the time. I see stuff being written by people I never heard of, and I don’t know whether they have any credentials. “You have bloggers and editorial writers who write about what we are doing who never come up here and have no idea what’s going on. If I need a plumber, I want one who has credentials and who is licensed by the state.”

So, he reasoned, why not reporters? His bill would set up a governor-appointed board to determine who could be a Michigan Registered Reporter. According to his specifications, successful candidates would have to show that they had a journalism degree, three years of experience, or other qualifications, including letters from already sanctioned reporters.

It is also important to note that the senator is not proposing preventing anyone who is not a “Michigan Registered Reporter” from writing or broadcasting the news.

“I just thought it might be helpful in terms of helping figure out whose reporting you can trust,” he said.

That’s a worthy goal. The main problem, however, is that there is a strong risk that the registration process is going to be politicized, no matter what steps you take to prevent it. Conservatives are going to go after some folks; liberals will go after others. There will be controversy over the difference between journalists and entertainers. (What, pray tell, is Glenn Beck?) And having been among stubborn, cantankerous reporters most of my life, I can tell you that virtually no legitimate journalist is going to want to be a state-sanctioned “registered reporter.”

However, you could expect plenty of lobbyists for special interests and public relations types to apply for the designation. Whether or not intentionally, Senator Patterson did one thing right. His bill provides that registered reporters’ licenses would need to be renewed every year on April Fool’s Day.

But he also has one criteria that would eliminate any real journalist from serious consideration. His bill says “in order to qualify, an applicant shall be of good moral character.”

Few of us ever get accused of that.

That’s the one thing of which few of us ever get accused.

This column was originally published in the Toledo Blade on May 28, 2010.

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