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LLRX Book Review by Heather A. Phillips - We're All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age

By Heather A. Phillips, Published on September 28, 2008

Shield laws protect journalists from having to turn information such as notes and sources over to the government. Advocates contend that shield laws help to ensure that the press can act as the “fourth branch” of government, allowing the public access to the information it needs supervise the government and other important institutions. Forty-nine states and the District of Columbia protect some journalists through statute or case law.

The issue of shield laws has been debated frequently in recent years. One of the highest profile examples of this can be seen in the Plame investigation and trial of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby. But an equally important and less frequently contemplated question is exemplified by the case of “citizen journalist” Josh Wolf, who spent 226 days in jail for refusing to hand over information to prosecutors investigating damage to a San Francisco city police car that occurred during a 2005 riot. Who, in this day and age, qualifies as a journalist? This is a question that author Scott Gant, a partner in the Washington, DC office of Boies, Schiller & Flexner LLP with a constitutional law practice, seeks to explore.

Though sometimes neglected, this isn’t a new question. On this point, the author provides an illuminating outline of the issuance of press credentials by Congress. It is a little known fact that there exist even today, three separate Congressional Press Galleries. One is reserved for daily print publications, another is for nondaily periodicals, and a third for the use of radio and television. This is because newspapers initially excluded periodicals and broadcast journalists on the grounds that they weren’t “real journalists”.

The issue of “real journalists” has reappeared today in a peculiarly modern form. Are bloggers journalists? Should someone who blogs professionally for, say, the Washington Post, be treated any differently under the law than someone with an independent blog who receives no income from their activities? What about bloggers who are careless, unedited and/or marginally literate? Should the Christian Science Monitor be on the same footing as the wingnut with broadband internet access, a gripe and too much time on his hands?

Regardless of society’s biases, however, Gant points out that the Supreme Court has "never determined the Press Clause has any meaning or significance distinct from the Speech Clause of the First Amendment." Notwithstanding Justice Potter Stewart’s oratorical suggestions in the 70's that the press clause should protect "institutions," the Court has based its decisions on the premise that the speech clause which belongs to all of us, not just "the press".

Gant uses this significant point to support his contention that it is the function of news gathering and the dissemination of ideas that is most important to journalism, and that one's title, income, and employer are at best side issues in determining who is a journalist in the day-to-day realities of issuing press passes as well as in larger policies such as the extension of shield laws.

As frightening as this new world of journalistic (or quasi-journalistic) anarchy is, it is also not without precedent. The author points out that the modern world of blogging and viral videos is in many ways remarkably similar to the world of the broadside and pamphleteers from which our country grew. Gant argues that the democratization of journalism is more like what the Founding Fathers envisioned than the large corporate media outlets that we have come to understand as “the press”. Gant contends that is because of the consolidation of the media that “freedom of the press” seems to many like a special privilege that applies only to powerful, distant and corporations.

Gant presents specific, accessible, engaging, persuasively reasoned arguments for his contentions, and incorporates both legal and historical analysis. Underlying Gant’s premise is the idea that technology has changed not only the media of information exchange, but the roles and cultural institutions associated with information as well.

This book will be of particular interest to libraries with collections dealing with constitutional law, or media law. Libraries with journalism, technology, or media history collections may also find this book to be a valuable addition to their collections.

cover of We're All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet We're All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet
Author: Scott Gant
Binding: Hardcover
List price: $26.00 USD
Amazon price: $21.70 USD