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Hanging Citizen Journalists Out to Dry: Shield-Law Amendment Excludes Unpaid Bloggers

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This may seem like a little inside baseball, but bear with me, because it will directly affect some of your favorite blogs.

At my blog, Pam's House Blend, my contributors and I have inboxes overflowing with emails asking us to cover this story or that event -- from advocacy organizations, tips from readers, PR firms, and the news media. It's pretty clear that the equality rights movement is highly dependent on blogs and citizen journalism to analyze, report and advocate in the unique way that we do.

Many of these LGBT-based blogs are done as a labor of love because there's certainly not enough money out there to quit our day jobs. Bloggers like myself, who subsidize the site with an unrelated day job are about to get a big F-You from Chuck Schumer if the roof isn't raised. Ad revenue is irrelevant here, by the way; you have to be employed by an entity to be covered.

A recent amendment to the federal shield bill being considered in the Senate will exclude non-"salaried" journalists and bloggers from the proposed law's protections.

The law, called the Free Flow of Information Act, is intended to prevent journalists from being forced to divulge confidential sources, except in cases such as witnessing crimes or acts of terrorism.

Well, read the fine print to see how citizen journalists are left legally hanging out to dry. Schumer's amendment draws a distinct line between bloggers and "real journalists" that:

limits the definition of a journalist to one who "obtains the information sought while working as a salaried employee of, or independent contractor for, an entity-

a. that disseminates information by print, broadcast, cable, satellite, mechanical, photographic, electronic, or other means; and

b. that--
1. publishes a newspaper, book, magazine, or other periodical;
2. operates a radio or television broadcast station, network, cable system, or satellite carrier, or a channel or programming service for any such station, network, system, or carrier;
3. operates a programming service; or
4. operates a news agency or wire service."

So there's no doubt that independent bloggers are the target here. At once we're considered irrelevant and so dangerous they have to legislatively set up a slippery slope that can land us in the clink or left penniless just for trying to participate in citizen journalism. Wow. The real issue here, however, is less the shield law than placing a definition of what is a journalist on the books. That will allow pols, news outlets, state governments, etc. to deny citizen journalists press access because they are not "journalists" as defined by federal law.

It's a huge slippery slope and a loss for independent reporting by bloggers if this definition clears.

Marcy Wheeler of Firedoglake confirms that we're screwed:

To to be a journalist in Chuck Schumer's eyes, you have to both have a boss (at this point, you generous readers and Jane would count as my boss, but Jane doesn't have a boss, for example) and that boss' company must disseminate news on some other medium, in addition to the Toobz. Even free-lance writers or people like IF Stone (in the period when he ran his own newsletter) would be excluded from this definition of journalist.

Now, I'm on the record as a skeptic that this new law is going to work out the way the media thinks. I fear that the national security exemption will mean the law will protect people like Judy Miller mobilizing smears or the Rent-a-Generals spreading propaganda, but not protect Dana Priest or James Risen and their sources.

Still, this move pisses me off because it's a transparent bid to grant a powerful industry special privileges.

This is about ensuring that there is a wall between real journalists and the perceived unwashed masses of ignorant, unqualified bloggers who are mucking up the system. This is a serious issue, because I believe that reliable citizen journalists do have the respect of traditional media in some circles, but this legislative bid to create a firm wall is declaring war on us.

Nieman Journalism Lab's Zachary M. Seward, who previously noted the House's different definition of journalist, also expressed concern. "The shield law obviously needs a definition that limits its scope, but the professional definition, which now seems inevitable, would exclude student journalists as well as bloggers with a day job," he wrote.

It's ironic that this development surfaces right after I discussed the fairly accurate perception that blogging/advocacy journalism sits in a position that is ill-defined. (Huffington Post, "A Tech-Powered Gay Rights Movement"):

It's a headless monster in many ways -- digital activists in this world are frequently not Big Gay insiders. They are often part-time activists -- people who feel strongly about issues and use the Internet daily. They never intended to lead or even follow movement leaders; they are just handy with the Internet tools of the trade, and have something to say about equality that resonates with readers.

Feeling the same financial pain the traditional print publications are experiencing with the economic downturn and drop in ad revenue, there is no pleasure in seeing LGBT publications shutter. Bloggers and activists are highly dependent on the strength of news media with an LGBT focus that has a budget to send reporters to do stories the online activists simply don't have the funds to do. It's a symbiotic relationship as well -- many LGBT reporters want their stories linked on high-traffic or influential gay blogs because it expands their reader reach, and builds support to continue doing the work critical for both journalism and the equality movement overall.

Honestly, I have problems with this shield law for other reasons -- why is the federal government getting into the business of regulating journalism to begin with? Surely there are constitutional issues at play here. But that's a different topic worthy of debate...

So simultaneously as traditional news media is under financial fire, citizen journalists are about to take a hit of epic proportions with the aid of a Democratic Congress. Imagine that. Thanks, Chuck. You can give him a ring at (202) 224-3027.