Should Nebraska license journalists?

Should Nebraska license journalists?

Last week, Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts’ administration announced a new method for “credentialing” journalists to participate in gubernatorial press conferences.

The new policy would require those who wish to have credentials to submit answers to questions about their organization’s business model, as well as a notarized letter from their manager. The policy was apparently in response to a credentialing request from NOISE—a non-profit news website that focuses on “community-based journalism.” NOISE, which stands for “North Omaha Information Support Everyone,” is alleged to be “an advocacy organization funded by liberal donors,” by the governor’s spokesman.

The credentialing application (found here) seems to be aimed at keeping people out of the press conferences. The “Additional Criteria” section is especially interesting:

Upon receipt of the application, the Governor’s Office will also conduct an analysis of the following factors to ensure that the applicant maintains journalistic integrity.

  1. Is the applicant a bona fide journalist of repute in the profession?

  2. Is the applicant free of real or perceived conflicts of interest?

  3. Does the applicant decline compensation, favors, special treatment, secondary employment, or political involvement when accepting any of those items would compromise journalistic integrity?

  4. Does the applicant resist pressures from advertisers, donors, lobbyists, or other special interest groups?

Media of Nebraska—a consortium of newspapers, broadcasters, and the Nebraska Press Association—has issued an objection to this new policy, based on First Amendment (Free Press) grounds, which I find compelling.

The writers of the First Amendment lived in a world of partisan press, where the majority of reporters were aligned with one party or another. They nonetheless believed that a free press was essential to the future of the republic.

In the post-Jacksonian world, many press entities became privately owned, and competed in the larger market through attempts at less explicitly partisan views, especially on editorial pages.

History and constitutional law aside, in some respects, it seems that the governor’s office—which has a record of supporting efforts to reduce the barriers of licensing for professions—is seeking to exert a kind of executive licensing authority over the professional qualifications of the press.

To be clear, credentialing of journalists—typically “permitting a journalist to enter a space or engage in a specific activity without regard for the rules applicable to the public at large”—is not an unusual function for government offices. Whether for security reasons or just limiting numbers in a closed space, limiting the flow of who enters certain spaces is not necessarily unreasonable. Credentialing and special access by the press has long assumed that they are there in place of (and as the eyes for) the larger public.

More specifically, the question is, who gets to determine who qualifies as a “bona fide journalist of repute in the profession?”

Licensing boards can push people aside because they don’t meet the standards envisioned by those sitting on the boards, or by statutory requirements of a particular state, while many consumers believe that they are legitimate or “bona fide.”  The example of Mike Beyer, who spent eight years in the Navy as a construction electrician, including four years working in a U.S. Department of Labor apprenticeship, being refused the opportunity to test for a journeyman’s license is instructive. His bona fides as an electrician would be accepted by most of us if we needed work done in our homes (were he allowed to work by the state).

For those of us who believe in free markets and limited occupational licensing, the governor’s office deciding who gets to be a “legitimate” journalist is every bit as concerning as a state licensing board deciding whether or not a barber should be able to be a barber, or whether a professional license or experience in another state should be considered “bona fide” and adequate for practicing in Nebraska.

Ultimately, the market, which for journalists is audiences, and even advertisers or donors, decides whether or not the “news” that a journalist is reporting is worthy to consume or support—just as people in the market make decisions based on word-of-mouth whether to visit a particular cosmetologist to get a haircut—regardless of licensing.

The past 30 or 40 years have seen a dramatic change in the way that people get their news. We’ve moved away from three channels of “nightly news” and a morning or evening paper delivered to our doors, to 24-hour news channels, online news services, and freelance journalists who are oftentimes specialized to particular issues or audiences.

A “journalist” may have attended journalism school, but may also be someone who has a passion for information and writing about that information. One blog post suggests that there are multiple types of journalism: Investigative, News, Reviews, Columns, and Feature Writing. Some individuals cross over into multiple areas.

In Nebraska statute, and as a matter of general policy, occupational licensing is specifically limited for the purposes of protecting the “health, safety and welfare” of the public. Journalists engage in thought and the dissemination of ideas, but it seems that it would be rare for a journalist’s misdeeds to present a clear danger to the physical health and safety of the public.

“Licensing” of journalists by state actors should be avoided to prevent a potential conflict with the First Amendment. Limitations on who can have access should not be based not on subjective criteria, like what kinds of questions might be asked by specific journalists, but rather on whether there is space available. Politicians should welcome the opportunity to answer questions by those who may challenge them because it’s in those answers that they grow closer to the public that they serve.

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