Monday, March 9, 2009

Nightmare in a Trojan Horse - The Free Flow of Information Act of 2009 (HR 985)

It's no news to some of us that many (but certainly not all) politicians would love to have full-blown censorship and outright government control of the free press. Ah, "free press." That's the problem - the definition of "press." A bill in Congress, HR 985, would greatly limit the definition of who is considered media/press/journalists (choose your term). It has the ironic name of "Free Flow of Information Act of 2009." George Orwell could not have named it any better. Unfortunately, it seems to be fooling a lot of people. Those who have not read the entire bill mistakenly think it's "a dream for journalists who worry about going to jail for not revealing confidential sources." It is no dream. HR 985 is a nightmare wrapped in a Trojan horse. It is an attempt to limit hundreds of thousands of citizen journalists, freelance journalists, and part-time journalists. While the bill gives some protection to "certain persons," others are left out in the cold. HR 985's stated purpose is "To maintain the free flow of information to the public by providing conditions for the federally compelled disclosure of information by certain persons connected with the news media." Just who are those "certain persons" in HR 985? They are "covered persons" who are essentially excempted in most cases from compelled disclosure of information - in other words, revealing the name of a confidential source of information. HR 985 defines a covered person this way (emphasis added): ... a person who regularly gathers, prepares, collects, photographs, records, writes, edits, reports, or publishes news or information that concerns local, national, or international events or other matters of public interest for dissemination to the public for a substantial portion of the person's livelihood or for substantial financial gain and includes a supervisor, employer, parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such covered person. Translation: If you are not "regularly" paid to write about current events, you are not considered to be legitimate by HR 985's sponsoring members of Congress. If passed, HR 985 would not recognize a person who has a full time non-writing job but occasionally writes about local government affairs. That person might even be paid for their writing, but if those payments to not amount to "a substantial portion" of that person's income, or qualify as "substantial financial gain," that person would not be considered a "real" journalist by the US Congress. The bill, by the way, does not define "substantial financial gain" or "substantial portion of...livelihood." This begs the question: Would a court be forced to drag the IRS into the matter of a freelance reporter trying to protect a confidential source in order to determine how much money the reporter has earned from his/her writing? Those who write about current events, whether they are frequently published freelancers or "just bloggers," already know the frustration of government control of the media on a local level. Let's say you live in a city such as Chicago, and you're a freelance writer or a blogger. You try to take photos at a public meeting, or talk to a cop near a crime scene, or phone some flak at City Hall to ask questions. Odds are good that you'll be asked whether you have "credentials." In other words, are you officially recognized by the city (government) as "press." No? You're not? Sorry, they say, no photos, no answers, no nothing, go away. Now let's say you're a blogger or freelancer anywhere in the United States, and you report on current events, whether local, state or national. Maybe you get paid, maybe you just do it for the love of it. Too bad. You may be SOL in the near future if some in Congress have their way. On March 6, Jason Lee Miller reported this (emphasis added): Two versions of a bill in Congress would enshrine a journalist’s right to keep his or her sources confidential, effectively banning the government from forcing journalists to reveal whistleblowers. One version though—the House version—gives an incredibly stupid definition of journalist that excludes not only bloggers, but freelancers, independents, and nonprofit journalists as well. Full Article at WebProNews... The other version is a Senate bill, S. 448. I would disagree with Miller that HR 985 is "stupid." Rather, it is evil genius. It's a way for the federal government to "legally" gain a bit more control of the media. Yes, freelance writers are part of the "media." Keep in mind that neither Benjamin Franklin nor Mark Twain had "press credentials." HR 985 would obviously have a chilling effect on bloggers and other writers who are not employed by news organizations. However, it could also have a chilling effect on news organizations themselves, for many of them employ freelance writers who may not earn a "substantial portion" of their livelihood from such activities. Newspapers and other news organization, many of which were already struggling before the economic downturn, will have difficult questions ask themselves, a few of which are: A) Should the the news organization bring their freelancers or part-timers on board and pay them more, so that they qualify as "covered persons?" (Answer: Many news orgs cannot afford that, which is why they employ part-timers and freelancers in the first place); B) Should the news org stop using contributors who do not qualify as "covered persons?" (Answer: Same as "A" above); C) Should the news org stop covering stories about government and politicians so as to avoid the need to use confidential sources? (Answer: This would be the easiest way to go, but it would reduce the coverage of scandals and bad government practices.) The answer to question "C" is the one that most appeals to the sponsors of HR 985. But have no doubt that there are plenty of other politicians around the nation who would love to see freelancers and bloggers face one more obstacle in their attempts to keep the public informed. Ben Franklin and Mark Twain are rolling in their graves. RELATED: HR 985 "Free Flow of Information Act of 2009" (as introduced in House) Text of S.448 as introduced in Senate Federal Shield Bills Offer Rival Takes On Who's A Journalist; Bloggers Could Be Left Unprotected Are Bloggers Journalists? Media Shield Reintroduced Letter from whistleblower Bunny Greenhouse Newspaper Man Benjamin Franklin Chicago News Bench RSS Feed Cool Stuff...