News+and+politics religion philosophy the cynic librarian: Are Journalists Better Than The Rest of Us?

Monday, May 22, 2006

Are Journalists Better Than The Rest of Us?

Does the press have no more/no less rights than a citizen has? On the face of it, this seems to be an appeal to fairness and one that plays on the fear that someone will get more--have more rights--than someone else. The power of this suggestion is very strong in American life, where power, money, prestige, and other things rest on the principle of rights. ...

This emotionally charged appeal would then seem to work in a media critic's favor. We don't like to think that anyone else is getting something that we can't--in principle--get too. This argument sits at the basis of many of the Right and Left appeals for justice and equality.

Yet, I think that this appeal, while unsavory, is wrong not because of its implicit legal correctness but because it misses the point. That is, the rights that I have to freedom of expression are different from the rights that news media have. If I read the constitution correctly, freedom of the press is not lumped together with an individual's right to freedom of expression. Freedom of the press stands by itself as another right:

or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press [First Amendment]
This "freedom... of the press" could be seen from several angles. That is, I could see it from the angle of myself as a citizen who has an implied right to true ideas and information. This right is based on the presupposition that to carry out my duty as a citizen I must have the truest and most accurate information to make an informed political decision.

The second aspect of the right of a free press involves the rights of journalists as journalists. It seems to me that in their role of journalists, they perform a function that is inherently different from that of an individual citizen. This function, I suggest, has attached to it certain rights that go above and beyond those that an individual acting solely as a citizen has.

But there are people who have different rights, depending on their functions, no? Police have the right to kill people engaging in threatening acts. An executioner has the right to put someone to death. Soldiers can kill in war. These are rights that come in the preformance of a certain function. If a policeperson were to kill someone off-duty and without cause, they'd be prosecuted like you or me.

Journalists--as journalists--do have rights that accrue to their function of reporting news. They must have a press pass to enter places where you or I can't--a crime scene, for example. I believe that the case law on this protects these "special" rights that journalists have when they are carrying out their function as a journalist.

We should not conflate these two rights. Playing on the emotional appeal attached to the idea of someone having more or getting more via special privileges or rights, he wants to call into play the resentment that often haunts the modern representative democracy framework of government.

Yet, the framers of the constitution appear to have realized that a free press warrants a separable set of rights. These guarantee what further seems to be a necessity in a democracy: the free flow of and access to information that enables citizens to carry out their constitutional right to a free and democratic government.

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