Review: We’re All Journalists Now

18 08 2008

We’re All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age.  Scott Gant.  New York: Free Press, 2007.  240 pp.

On the 2008 US presidential campaign trial, a select group of journalists follows the candidates and gains special access for interviews and photo opportunities. Whether it be a press conference, sporting event, or parade, the pack of journalists has greater access to the candidates than average American citizens. Rarely does anyone ask why.

We see the same privilege granted to journalists in presidential press conferences, sessions of Congress and Supreme Court trials. With technology advancing the ability to create and disseminate information online and quality of online journalism on the rise, who are “journalists” today anyway?

“Although we are not all engaged in the practice of journalism, any one of us can be if we want to,” says Scott Gant, a distinguished Washington attorney and constitutional scholar. “In that respect, we’re all journalists now.”

In his book, We’re All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age, Gant explores press privilege within the context of US law and politics. Through thorough examinations of court rulings and how each branch of government regulates press access and privilege, Gant argues that this “more perfect Union” has a less than perfect system for regulating the freedom of the press.

“Preferential treatment for professional journalists is so common today that we often don’t even notice it,” Gant says. In our passive state, Gant argues that we’ve wrongly misidentified journalism as a job rather than an activity.

Gant takes a historical, methodical approach to supporting his argument. He reviews the rise of the American press system and points out that although recent technological advancement has pushed the need for updated rules of engagement for journalists, it is only the most recent catalyst. He says freedom of the press, since its inception, has been narrowly bestowed by government branches to professional media companies, wrongly excluding individuals, book authors, freelancers, libraries and other publishers of alternative media. Gant says online journalists are only the latest group to be left out.

He reviews how the courts have defined press freedoms as constitutionally guaranteed by “The Press Clause” in the first amendment in the Bill of Rights and identifies the ambiguity of 1972 Branzburg vs. Hayes Supreme Court decision, which rejected reporters’ contentions that they should be exempt from compliance with subpoenas, as the cause for confusion about press freedoms today. He faults the Supreme Court for evading the hard questions about the nature of press freedom since Branzburg and avoiding to evolve the definition of journalism despite renewed urgency by online journalists. Gant says journalism is “in flux” with traditional media organizations and online journalists at odds and trying to determine how they can exist harmoniously and if they should enjoy the same privileges without direction from the courts.

Gant is not shy to assert his own opinion. “There is virtually no historical support for the claim that that the Press Clause bestows rights on the ‘organized press’ that are not enjoyed by others,”  he says. “Moreover, attaching constitutional significance to judgments about who is a member of ‘the press’ would invite one of the few things we now the First Amendment was designed to avoid: conditioning of speech on securing a license.”

After he argues that press freedoms should be extended to individuals practicing journalism rather than just blanketed over the traditional, professional media industry, Gant transitions to define what privileges the freedom of the press should guarantee. He dedicates the discussion to shield laws and criticizes state shield statutes for being “woefully outdated,” and limited in scope. He uses as example the 2006 Connecticut shield law that only protects an undefined “news media” and does not expressly cover blogs or nontraditional media.

Regardless, Gant says even if more specific or amended state shield laws arise, “…The absence of a federal shield statute leaves an enormous gap in protection for journalists.” He blames the ambiguity of the Branzburg decision for limiting support in Congress or efforts by media organizations to pass a federal shield law in the past and the current Bush administration for undermining renewed efforts and believing that “a shield law would undermine national security by tipping the scales in favor of journalists…”

Gant concludes that we need to overhaul the structure of press privilege and freedoms, which do not meet today’s demands. “We need a thorough reexamination of existing laws to debate how they should be changed to properly account for the reality that we’re all now capable of being journalists, and to avoid relegating non professional journalists to second-class status,” he says.

Gant’s assessment of press access and privilege is timely and thought-provoking. At a time when the boundaries between professional and amateur journalism are blurring, we have an increasing need to determine to whom, why and when, preferential press treatment should be granted. With a presidential election in the horizon, the need is immediate. Gant provides groundwork for the greater discussion about the role of press in democracy and the definition of journalism looking forward.

As Gant points out, our pervasive system of press preferences has created “a journalistic caste system, in which those working for established news organizations are given priority over others sharing information and ideas with the public.” He demonstrates that this system no longer alone serve the interests of the networked, connected public, which has more diverse, specific demands for information, and has greater access to create its own content and dialogue. Citizen journalism can help fill the void.

“Journalists are not a priestly class. They are citizens just like the rest of us,” Gant says. He makes a compelling argument through detailed examinations of constitutional interpretations and legislative, judicial and excutive precedent to prove his point. Any student of media, law or US politics has something to gain from reading and realizing We’re All Journalists Now.

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One response

19 08 2008
christyluther

Hi Paolo,

I decided to comment on your review because I enjoy your writing style and I liked your past two reviews. As you know from our group discussions, I have some qualms with Gant’s message, so I wanted to comment on a review of his book, “We’re All Journalists Now.”

In your reivew, you do a nice job of summarizing Gant’s main point and providing quotes and examples from the book. I particularly like your first three introduction paragraphs, which you use to lead into the book review, using real-life examples of discrimination between professional an non-professional journalists.

It is clear in your conclusion that you endorse the book as a good read for students of law, media and politics. And, you state your own critique with: “Gant is not shy to assert his own opinion.” As you and I agreed upon in our small-group discussion, Grant certainly makes his argument well-known. He does a good job of taking a stance – until his final chapters where his message gets a little blurred.

I found this to be a great book for its ability to provoke thought and initiate discussion. I would be curious to hear what you found Gant’s downfalls to be, if any. I found his downfalls to be few and I viewed his questionable stances as a plus, since they can be used to instigate a healthy debate on the topic of journalist’s rights.

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