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Federal Shield Bill: A New Hope for Old Media

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A federal media shield bill is moving to the Senate floor and neither political party is happy. Conservative hawks are calling it another White House distraction from a failed foreign policy. Free speech advocates decry the government licensing of journalists. Five Republicans voted to advance the bill from committee - giving hope that bipartisanship will break the decades of gridlock in finding a federal solution to patchwork state legislation.

If the bill does pass, the conflict between free speech and security won't end. It will, however, be a defining win for traditional news media in its fight with digital media organizations. Many bloggers and web personalities are afraid the government's definition of "covered journalists" will have a chilling effect on efforts that many started only as an honorable response to scandals like the NSA leaks and IRS political targeting.

But citizen journalism isn't a heroic calling. It's a contradiction in terms. Citizens have the right and responsibility to broadcast claims of criminality, but there is no substitute for professionals with defined standards. That's not to say citizens have no place in reporting news. This bill simple sets the line between those who gather and share news (citizens), and those who gather and report (journalists). If anything, this bill effectively establishes "Reporting" as a proper noun.

Citizen journalism isn't evil, but there's a great danger when given the same status as professional journalism. Take the case of Crystal Cox - a self-described "investigative blogger" who took on a corporation accused of corruption and became a cause célèbre among free speech activists. In January, a federal court ruled that she has the same protections as journalists in defamation lawsuits.

But Cox is no champion of free speech. She demonstrated no interest in objectivity or facts. She embarked on a crusade to smear the reputation of the company, Obsidian Financial, and its leadership as part of a personal vendetta. She solicited a public relations consulting contract from Obsidian's co-founder, then attacked when he said no. She bombarded Obsidian with fake websites and online content that paralyzed the company's ability to operate. She used the cloak of journalism to attack enemies, going so far as to register domain names of a man's three-year old daughter in a disgusting attempt to bully and extort.

Her work has more in common with cyberterrorism than journalism. That's why a court initially delivered Obsidian a $2.5 million judgment against Cox. She's an extreme example and certainly not a fair representation of all or most bloggers. But major world events like the Boston Marathon to Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 have shown the tendency for citizen journalism to naturally devolve into rapid, powerful, virtual lynch mobs.

There's a valid argument that citizens can cover more ground with greater freedom than reporters beholden to corporate ownership, but shield laws will not create an exclusive class of preferred journalists. It's true that explosive technological growth allowing content to be published at lower costs has forced traditional news outlets to slash jobs, seemingly reducing major news coverage. This volatility in the journalism job market has driven many established reporters into other fields. But according to the Pew Research Center's State of the News Media 2014, the growth of digital media has spurred the creation of 5,000 full-time professional jobs in recent years. The market is correcting itself, eliminating jobs of those who haven't adapted to the changing media landscape while creating new hybrid jobs for those who embrace a multi-platform approach.

Edgy startups like BuzzFeed and VICE are dominating with younger audiences for good reason. But there have been just as many smart reinventions of old media of late as there are new media success stories. Newsweek, the venerable imprint, is back in print as of March. And on April 16, the Los Angeles Register will launch - the city's first new competition against the Los Angeles Times in decades. The old media is far from over.

Journalism doesn't always work - the names Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Richard Jewell instill humility in any reporter over 30 - and the prurient fascination with blood, boobs and babies can be disheartening to those in search of truth in the news. But no industry is perfect. That's why the social media revolution so fully altered the mass media landscape and democratized news. By adding nuance and layers of intrigue to a world where everyone is a publisher, a source, and a stakeholder, new media has helped journalism grow into the 21st century. As a federal shield bill inches to the finish line, it's important for journalists to avoid overconfidence from a defining win. Instead, they must continue to look at ways to incorporate the best of both worlds.

In the $60 billion news industry, no one wants to stifle free speech. That's why this bill has special exclusions for students and freelancers, as well as a process for judiciary-approved exemptions. It's just another necessary evil, like most everything going in or going out of Washington nowadays.