« Blogger Sing-along | Main | Top 7 Alternatives to Wikipedia »

A Q & A With Scott Gant, Author of We're All Journalists Now

On May 15, I posted a book announcement about Scott Gant's We're All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age. The work was released to the public for sale today. Here's the text of an Q & A with Gant about his very interesting book.

Q. When did you first become interested in the shifting definition of a journalist, and what made you decide to write a book?

A. For several years I’ve been fascinated by questions about whether journalists are entitled to privileges not extended to ordinary citizens, and what distinguishes “journalists” from other people who make information and ideas available to the public. I found my interest in those questions intensifying in early 2005, when a number of news stories propelled them into the headlines. One of those stories disclosed that the Department of Education had paid Armstrong Williams, a prominent African-American commentator, $240,000 to promote the federal government’s No Child Left Behind program on his nationally syndicated television show (a fact he did not disclose to his listeners). Another revealed that for two years the White House had been issuing a press pass to Jeff Gannon of Talon News, a now-defunct Web site affiliated with GOPUSA (an organization whose mission “is to spread the conservative message throughout America”), during which Gannon asked the President and White House press secretary questions that many described as “softballs” designed to demonstrate support for the administration and its policies. After it was revealed that Gannon had used a pseudonym to obtain his press pass, and lacked any significant journalism experience, a furor over his two-year admittance to the White House press corps ensued, with many claiming that Gannon did not belong alongside “legitimate” journalists in the press room.

As these incidents were making headlines, a much more significant story was taking shape. By the middle of 2005, it became unmistakably clear that the Web was facilitating the emergence of large numbers of nonprofessionals and nontraditional journalists (including many bloggers) as a force in defining and distributing news. I recognized that the lines distinguishing professional journalists from other people who disseminate information, ideas, and opinions to a wide audience had been blurred, perhaps beyond recognition. Aspects of the issue had legal dimensions that were receiving little attention. I also soon realized that I was forming strong views about these issues—for instance, that journalism should be viewed as an activity, not a job title, and that “freedom of the press” is a right that belongs to all of us, not just those working for traditional news organizations. I began taking notes and collecting material, planning to write an article for a legal journal examining these issues. It then occurred to me that this discussion would interest a broader audience. So, I approached a friend who had recently formed his own literary agency, and asked if he thought my idea might make an interesting book. The rest, as they say, is history.

Q. How did you go about gathering your research for this book?

A. We’re All Journalists Now addresses historical, economic, cultural, and legal issues, among others, and therefore required research on a wide variety of topics. That work was done before and during the writing process, over a period of about 18 months, and involved reading books, articles, legal material, studies, polls, traditional news publications, as well as blogs and other forms of citizen journalism. I also conducted a number of interviews – getting to play the role of journalist myself.

Q. What is your suggestion for ways that current laws should be changed to encompass non-traditional journalists?

A. Most of the rules, policies, and practices under which journalists enjoy privileges not available to others operate either without any definition of journalism, or with a narrow perspective that turns in part on whether a person is affiliated with a traditional news organization or makes a living practicing journalism. The fundamental change needed is a move to a broader conception of journalism, viewing it as an endeavor which can be undertaken by any of us, even if we’re not working for a traditional news organization, and even if we are not engaged in the activity for financial gain.

Q. With your background in constitutional law, do you think it necessary and/or likely that the First Amendment will be revised anytime soon?

A. I do not expect the First Amendment to be formally amended anytime soon. But, like other parts of the Constitution, the First Amendment is subject to ongoing interpretation and reinterpretation. The Supreme Court’s current interpretation of the First Amendment effectively reads it as if the Press Clause (the words “or of the Press”) was not there, having expansively interpreted the Amendment’s Speech Clause without deciding whether there are any circumstances under which “the Press” have rights or privileges under the Constitution not available to others. If Congress does not enact a federal shield law with an inclusive definition of journalism, I anticipate that sometime in the relatively near future (in the context of Supreme Court jurisprudence that means roughly the next decade), the Supreme Court will have to consider whether the First Amendment confers any special rights on the press, and who qualifies for those rights. If an expansive federal shield statute is enacted, the Court may manage to stay clear of the issue for a while longer. If and when the Court takes up questions about the Press Clause and the nature of press freedom, it ought to reject the view that people are entitled to special rights and privileges based on their affiliation with a particular kind of business or organization rather than on their activities.

Q. If citizen journalists and bloggers were granted the same rights and protections as members of the mainstream media, what sort of problems might arise? Where do you think the line should be drawn between professional journalists and non-traditional journalists, and does there even need to be a line?

A. These are important questions, and I spend a significant part of the book’s final chapter trying to answer them and related concerns about adopting a more inclusive conception of journalism. The short answer is that I do not anticipate there will be as many complications as some people appear to imagine. For instance, I doubt many people not actually engaged in the dissemination of information and ideas to the public will claim that they are doing so in order to avail themselves of privileges extended to journalists. In addition, allocating press preferences based on a functional view of journalism – as opposed to doing so on the basis of affiliation with an established news organization or income tests – does not mean we would be without criteria to evaluate (and limit) claims of entitlement to rights and privileges designed for journalists. It would be defensible, in my view, to limit privileges to those who add some original analysis or content to what they disseminate to the public, which would exclude those who merely aggregate content created entirely by others. In the rare situations where there are physical constraints on the number of people who can receive a preference – such as limited seating in a courtroom – the government can use a number of neutral criteria to decide which journalists will receive it, such as a lottery system or first-come, first-served rule. But we also must not lose sight of the fact that the allocation of press preferences implicates important principles and constitutional rights. Even if the administration of privileges were made more complicated by adopting a broader conception of journalism, we should favor over-extension of preferences to denying press privileges to people actually engaged in the practice of journalism.

Q. How can we reconcile the disparity of accountability between members of the mainstream media and bloggers/non-traditional journalists? If an irresponsible blogger posts something false but is still considered a journalist, should he/she be protected under the First Amendment?

A. I am not sure there is a fundamental difference in accountability. Like traditional journalists and media organizations, individual non-traditional journalists will ultimately rise or fall based on the reputations they acquire and their ability to foster the trust of the consumers of their products. And like traditional journalists and media organizations, citizen journalists and bloggers are subject to liability for defamation and on other bases for things they write.

Q. If you were in charge of drafting the new definition of a “journalist” for the 2008 version of the New Oxford American Dictionary, what would you write?

A. Part of what I try to explain in the book is that legal definitions are sometimes different from – and in some respects more important than – classifications used in other contexts. For instance, if an imaginary private organization called the Society of Real Journalists wants to limit its membership to people who meet certain standards for quality, or otherwise, they are free to do so. Similarly, a person who has spent decades working for a major newspaper or television news outfit may resist the idea of calling an individual with a blog a “journalist” – and, again, they are entitled to their view, based on their personal notion of what constitutes journalism. But there are many circumstances in which the government bestows on those deemed “journalists” privileges unavailable to others. And in those situations, I believe journalism must be construed broadly. Recently proposed legislation in Congress for a federal shield law defines journalism as “the gathering, preparing, collecting, photographing, recording, writing, editing, reporting, or publishing of news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public.” This strikes me as a reasonably good approach.

Q. How do you think members of the mainstream media and traditional journalists will react to your book? What about bloggers and citizen journalists? Major news organizations?

A. I hope everyone interested in journalism and its vital role in our society will find the book interesting and its subject important. I nevertheless expect there will be resistance to some of my arguments. The view, held by some, that the only legitimate journalism is carried out by those working for established news organizations will not be readily abandoned. But most “mainstream” or traditional journalists also recognize the danger of having the government decide who is a journalist, or allocate preferences based on its judgment about what journalism is worthwhile, and many of my arguments are animated by that same concern.

June 12, 2007 in Blogosphere | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference A Q & A With Scott Gant, Author of We're All Journalists Now:


The comments to this entry are closed.