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Declaring Who is a ‘Journalist’ is No Easy Matter

Friday, May 24th, 2013

HankPlante2By Hank Plante
Special to Calbuzz

I sat at the “press table” at a recent California Republican Convention covering the event for my TV station, when I started making small talk with the “reporter” next to me.

It turned out he was a dentist from Southern California who was writing a story about the convention for his personal blog. His official GOP convention press credentials, worn around his neck like mine, wouldn’t have given way his real job.

And that’s precisely why President Obama will have a tough time getting a federal shield law passed that would protect journalists from revealing their sources. The problem: Who is a journalist today?

Everyone in 2013 has a cell phone camera and an Internet connection. Everyone can find some online site to post a photo or an opinion. Should everyone be protected from law enforcement agencies asking about their sources or their work? There is no answer that’s easy enough for Congress to decide.

The 40 states that do have local shield laws are constantly dealing with who gets protected under them and who doesn’t. California’s shield law is specific about protecting a “publisher, editor or reporter,” but most interpretations say it probably also protects freelancers and stringers. Isn’t that everybody?

Journalists in this country aren’t licensed or even credentialed by any official agency. Want a “press pass?” Make one yourself with Photoshop. Want to alter a picture? Who’s stopping you? Want to make up your own facts? It will take hours to discover your deception and correct it after you’ve posted your story worldwide.

The American “journalist” who is widely credited for serving more jail time than any other for refusing to turn over his video to police, may have never been a journalist in the first place.

It was in 2005 when blogger Josh Wolf was videotaping a demonstration in San Francisco that got out of hand. Federal officials subpoenaed his video, and when Wolf refused to turn it over he wound up serving 226 days in federal prison.

Wolf became a cause célèbre among some (but not all) journalists’ organizations, even receiving awards from a few. Charges against him were eventually dropped, but he was freed before a final question could be answered: Was this freelancer a real journalist? Did he have a right to say no to the authorities?

That’s an answer we’re still looking for in this new media landscape, and one that only gets more complicated with every click of a smartphone.

Hank Plante is an Emmy and Peabody-winning journalist who spent three decades reporting for the CBS TV stations in San Francisco and Los Angeles. He lives in Palm Springs. Email him at hankplante1@gmail.com. This article originally appeared in the Palm Springs Desert Sun.