A Michigan lawmaker wants to license reporters to ensure they’re credible and vet them for “good moral character.”
Senator Bruce Patterson is introducing legislation that will regulate reporters much like the state does with hairdressers, auto mechanics and plumbers. Patterson, who also practices constitutional law, says that the general public is being overwhelmed by an increasing number of media outlets–traditional, online and citizen generated–and an even greater amount misinformation.
“Legitimate media sources are critically important to our government,” he said.
For someone who practices constitutional law, Patterson seems startlingly unfamiliar with the document. The first amendment clearly states, “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press;” The first amendment was incorporated against the states in Near v. Minnesota.
According to Patterson, he just wants to help the public wade through all of the “misinformation” that’s floating around the modern journalistic landscape. He thinks Michigan needs a system to help “the general public figure out which reporters to trust.” There are several major problems with this rationale. First, it’s unconstitutional. Any licensing system means that some journalists will be licensed and others will not. Licensing is a barrier to entry which would necessarily inhibit the freedom of the press. No licensing scheme for journalists can ever be consistent with the first amendment of our Constitution.
The idea also fails on precedent. Minnesota’s law was very similar to the one Patterson is trying to create. It allowed for the state to issue permanent injunctions against those who published scandalous, libelous, or defamatory newspapers. Perhaps started by well intentioned people, such laws inevitably become a tool to silence the opposition and preempt unfavorable press coverage from the media outlets that continue to operate under the state’s sanction. The court has overturned this type of law before, and I expect they would do so again. That is, unless Elena Kagan has her way.
Finally, the law has much deeper implications. Taken at face value, the law demonstrates Patterson’s belief that the average Michigander is too stupid to figure out where he’s getting his information. He believes his constituents are incapable of independent research. They could not possibly be expected to know the difference between The Onion and the Wall Street Journal. They could not possibly check the factual claims made by a local blogger. They need government to step in and tell them who to trust.
I reject that premise. A journalism degree is no guarantee of moral character or factual reporting. Working for three years as a reporter doesn’t imply sound ethics. And if anything, a government license to publish makes me less willing to trust your information—especially when the law’s architect has himself admitted he has no idea what qualifies someone to be a journalist. In the realm of information, trust is not built by degrees or licenses; it’s built by history. The more accurate your reporting in the past, the more likely I will trust your sources in the future. If you develop a pattern of half truths and outright lies, then I’m much more likely to dismiss your reporting in the future. My advice to Patterson: acknowledge the importance of personal responsibility; read skeptically until you develop trust; most importantly, don’t offload this process to a government panel.