For as long as the medium existed, yellow journalism and propaganda have been peddled to the unsuspecting masses. Unethical journalism is not a new phenomenon. Thankfully, the court of public opinion used to dictate whether or not these publications succeeded and survived; news outlets who crossed the line – no matter how powerful – eventually met their demise. In the post-truth age we now find ourselves in, some Republican lawmakers are steadily getting better at attacking the press and the First Amendment, often with our blessing if it means getting back at our political rivals.
“Fake news” is an insult frequently flung by Donald Trump at reporters who seek to hold him accountable for what he does and says. To the cult of personality he has fostered, lies have stopped being treated as something inexcusable and have started being viewed as something acceptable, sometimes even necessary.
Now emboldened by these attacks, the Republican lawmakers of Georgia have concocted and put forward the Ethics in Journalism Act, a ploy to shield their politicians from criticism from journalists who do research and dare to ask questions. House Bill 734, Congressman Andrew Welch’s swan song performed just before he resigned his seat, seeks to create the Journalism Ethics Board to produce “canons of ethics” and “rules and regulations”, which includes investigation and possible sanctioning of Georgia journalists. It entitles anyone interviewed by a journalist to any photographs, audio and video acquired by said journalist – free of cost – within three business days. Should the media outlet fail to produce the requested evidence within the allotted time, they are tagged with a “civil penalty” of $100 a day.
Cleverly, the bill is not framed in partisan language, and presents itself as a measure supporting transparency and an attempt to police bias and corruption. In theory, “ethical” journalists will not have to worry about getting “formal advisory opinions” being lodged against them or having their accreditation revoked. It is only the bad, unethical journalists who need to beware.
The bill’s mere existence, of course, implies that the current ethics and rules regarding journalism aren’t deemed sufficient enough in Welch’s opinion. In his defense, he claims the board is in line with the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), which has denounced the bill as a means “to intimidate journalists and chill the important work of holding powerful people and organizations accountable for their actions.”
According to the reporter who broke the story, prior to penning the bill Welch was frustrated about a journalist who asked him critical questions, and asked those who were listening to his rant if journalists had a state board similar to ones for lawyers.
Welch later dismissed the assertion as “false and silly”, but he has yet to clarify what was the true inspiration behind the bill, if it was not being intimidated by a reporter’s line of questioning.
A vigilant press can – and frequently has – lampooned the preferred narrative of a politician. Worse yet, a scandal can be the Achilles’ heel to the aspirations of a promising politician. The Republican party is all too aware of this. Unfortunately fact-checking is being appreciated less and less, and it is easier to simply insist that a reporter has a political agenda.
Predictably, the Georgia general assembly is exempt from the state’s own Open Records Act. The politicians who bristle the most at the press are not open to being transparent themselves, and don’t believe they need to adhere to the same standards they impose on their constituents. It is a sentiment that harkens back to the days when a monarch thought he was subject to no earthly authority, let alone a bothersome peasant asking questions.
Devin Nunes, the U.S. Representative for California’s 22nd congressional district, also believes he should be exempt from criticism and scandal. In his frivolous lawsuit against The Fresno Bee and McClatchy lies this gem:
“As a citizen of the United States of America and as a United States Congressman sworn to uphold the Constitution and laws of this great country, Nunez has a fundamental, core interest, private right and entitlement to the uninterrupted enjoyment of his reputation,” writes Nunes’s lawyer in his defamation complaint. “The Defendants enjoy absolutely no privilege to use the Internet or social media as a weapon to defame.”
Nunes believes that because he is a member of Congress, he is entitled to enjoy a good reputation. In his infinite wisdom, he is now waging war against the paper that previously endorsed him for daring to report on the things he did.
Our elected officials need to be reminded of who they work for.
There doesn’t need to be an additional board to screen journalists in a thinly-veiled effort to protect the privileged, in any state. Outside of voting, there are fewer ways to hold politicians and governments accountable than by testing to see if they actually know what they’re talking about. If they don’t, and they don’t believe they should be held to the high standard the office demands, they shouldn’t be there.
If we vote them in anyway, we reap the consequences.
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