Dick Durbin Wants to Stop You From Being a Journalist

Sen. Dick Durbin (cc photo: Center for American Progress Action Fund)

Sen. Dick Durbin tells you which parts of the First Amendment apply to you. (cc photo: Center for American Progress Action Fund)

Sen.  Dick Durbin (D.-Ill.), writing in the Chicago Sun-Times (“It’s Time to Say Who’s a Real Reporter,” 6/26/13), says it’s time to stop letting just anyone call themselves a journalist.

Everyone, regardless of the mode of expression, has a constitutionally protected right to free speech. But when it comes to freedom of the press, I believe we must define a journalist and the constitutional and statutory protections those journalists should receive.

By this he means, basically, that the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of the press probably don’t apply to you:

Not every blogger, tweeter or Facebook user is a “journalist.” While social media allows tens of millions of people to share information publicly, it does not entitle them to special legal protections to ignore requests for documents or information from grand juries, judges or other law enforcement personnel.

Otherwise, Durbin suggests, we’ll be in the absurd position of giving First Amendment protection to just anyone:

Is each of Twitter’s 141 million users in the United States a journalist? How about the 164 million Facebook users? What about bloggers, people posting on Instagram, or users of online message boards like Reddit?

To avoid this nightmare scenario, Durbin offers a proposal for a statutory definition of “journalist”:

A journalist gathers information for a media outlet that disseminates the information through a broadly defined “medium”–including newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, magazine, news website, television, radio or motion picture–for public use. This broad definition covers every form of legitimate journalism.

This is not a bad definition, actually–though it doesn’t do what Durbin wants it to do, that is, separate out “legitimate journalism” from what he sees as the illegitimate kind.

In Durbin’s formulation, a “journalist” is someone who 1) gathers information 2) for a media outlet that 3) disseminates the information through a broadly defined medium 4) for public use. I guess we can agree that journalists gather information (though they might also be expressing opinions about information, if they’re opinion journalists). It’s the next part that Durbin intends to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Student using computer (cc photo: Gates Foundation)

Sorry, it looks like only part of the First Amendment applies to you. (cc photo: Gates Foundation)

But Twitter, Facebook, Reddit and even Instagram are all, guess what, media outlets–that is, institutions whose primary purpose is to distribute information to the public. (Their names appear in bold in FAIR materials because we bold the names of media outlets.)

They disseminate information gathered by their users; the medium they use to do so is known collectively as “social media.” The fact that “social media” doesn’t appear in Durbin’s “broadly defined” list of media is irrelevant–Durbin doesn’t present his list as exclusive. (That’s why he says “including.”) It’s hard to think of a definition of “medium” that would exclude Facebook and include, say, nonfiction book publishing–which in the 21st Century  can be as hands-off as publishing a social media post (e.g., via Amazon’s Kindle store).

The final part of Durbin’s definition is that the information is disseminated for public use–which is a simple matter of privacy settings on most social media sites.

So to answer Durbin’s questions about users of Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Reddit: Yes, as long as they’re using these outlets to gather information for public use.

What’s at stake here, Durbin points out, is that under state shield laws “a protected journalist cannot be compelled to disclose sources or documents unless a judge determines there is an extraordinary circumstance or compelling public interest.” If a person who posts news on their Facebook page has that protection, surely the republic will survive.

About Jim Naureckas

Extra! Magazine Editor Since 1990, Jim Naureckas has been the editor of Extra!, FAIR's monthly journal of media criticism. He is the co-author of The Way Things Aren't: Rush Limbaugh's Reign of Error, and co-editor of The FAIR Reader: An Extra! Review of Press and Politics in the '90s. He is also the co-manager of FAIR's website. He has worked as an investigative reporter for the newspaper In These Times, where he covered the Iran-Contra scandal, and was managing editor of the Washington Report on the Hemisphere, a newsletter on Latin America. Jim was born in Libertyville, Illinois, in 1964, and graduated from Stanford University in 1985 with a bachelor's degree in political science. Since 1997 he has been married to Janine Jackson, FAIR's program director. You can follow Jim on Twitter at @JNaureckas.