Up to this point, most of my blog posts have focused on how bloggers and independent media have been enabled by modern technology and contemporary society. While, this is certainly the case in many instances, the Internet provides individuals with low production costs and the near infinite amount of resources of the online community; the modern era has also brought new restrictions that do not only threaten the ability of independent media outlets to survive, but challenge the very ideals of the free press exhibited through the First Amendment.
Of late there has been a substantial debate surrounding the definition of a journalist and whether independent bloggers, with little to no journalistic schooling, qualify as legitimate producers of news content. The pending outcome of this argument has taken on increased significance as the influence and readership of individual bloggers grows with each passing day.
The complex question of who is actually a journalist, becomes a rather delicate manner when bloggers and members of the independent media, are barred from covering governmental proceedings.
An Oregon state statute from the 1970s ensured journalists could sit in on, but not publish information from, the executive sessions called by city councils throughout the state. However, in July of 2008 Mark Bunster, the author of the blog Loaded Orygun, was not allowed admittance to an executive session of the Lake Oswego City Council, on the basis that he was not a member of the news media. Additionally, the incident prompted the Lake Oswego City Council to propose a media policy that clearly omitted bloggers from membership to the news media allowed to cover the event in question.
Executive sessions are thoroughly undemocratic and historically dubious, notable for underhanded deals and eleventh-hour arrangements. However, the true significance of the councilors of Lake Oswego to bar Bunster from their meeting and draft a media policy has repercussions far beyond the local politics of a small city in western Oregon or the history of dirty politics in the U.S.
The First Amendment to the Bill of Rights of the U.S. Constitution defends the freedom of the press from government interference. By taking the step to determine what constitutes a journalist and what can be considered a media outlet, government, even if it is a minor city council in Oregon, is restricting the flow of information and acting as a veritable gate-keeper; controlling the information the public receives.
Journalists and writers who operate outside the territory of mainstream media face obstacles from well beyond Oregonian civil government to the highest levels of American Federal Government in the District of Columbia.
In order to cover the happenings of Congress a journalist needs to acquire Senate and House credentials through the Congressional Press Galleries. In order to acquire these credentials one cannot be a lobbyist or a government official and most notably for many independent journalists, “applicants must also be employed by a periodical that is published for profit and is supported chiefly by advertising or by subscriptions.”
This last fact, barring non-profits and organizations supported by donors, may have been drafted with the best intentions, to prevent interest groups from entering the Congressional Press Gallery and exerting undue influence through their access to the inner-workings of Congress. Nevertheless, it puts independent media at an extreme disadvantage. As partisan as some independent publications may be, this is not a sound basis from barring their journalists and subsequently, their readers from access to the proceedings of Congress, especially as independent news outlets become ever more popular and provide a growing quantity of content to a growing audience.
The difficulty in acquiring Senate and House credentials also affects coverage of the Supreme Court as Congressional credentials are required to get a permanent press pass for the supreme body of the judicial branch.
Consider the Supreme Court. A largely undemocratic body, whose members serve for life and are appointed not elected. Additionally, the nine members of this judicial body are not subjected to anywhere near the same levels of press coverage as their counterparts in the Executive and Legislative branches; due to the complexity of the Republic’s highest court and the aforementioned anecdote of the nine judges not having to run for re-election and thus not having to cater to mainstream, yet alone, independent media outlets.
When one organization that actually devotes resources to covering the Supreme Court, SCOTUSblog, is routinely prevented from attaining a permanent press pass due to the blog’s connection to its sponsor Bloomberg Law, it drastically takes away from the public discourse. Moreover, it further constricts the limited amount of information flowing from Supreme Court procedures to the people of the United States, adding to a general lack of understanding regarding the highest law court in the Union, a court responsible for determining the constitutionality of federal and state legislation.
On top off being blocked from gathering content by local and federal government practices contemporary independent publications have faced the specter of higher postage rates since early 2007.
In a plan proposed by Time Warner Inc. earlier that year, every periodical would face an increase in postage rates. While all outlets would face this increase, the sheer size of conglomerates the size of Time Warner would allow their magazines to absorb these price increases. Alternatively, smaller magazines and weeklies including The Nation and Newsweek are much more affected by even a small increase in postage rates due to the situation that they lack the enormous amount of capital at the disposal of magazines under the protection of massive media partnerships.
The United States Postal Service was created by the Second Continental Congress on July 26, 1775 with the explicit intent of protecting the spread of information to and from citizens throughout the infant nation. The prominence of local newspapers, and the Fourth Estate as a whole, throughout most of the history of the United States can be directly attributed to the generous subsidies granted to printers by the Federal Government.
This concept of price protection for news publishers most directly affects small-scale publications where money is often not plentiful and which typically offer independent or alternate interpretations on current events. Therefore, even a small increase in mailing rates can have extremely adverse consequences for independent periodicals. And at a time when many of these periodicals are already losing quite a bit of revenue to the internet, rate hikes could very well force the nation’s historical weekly publications into an inescapable corner.
City councilors, Congressional ordinances and corporate greed present major obstacles for bloggers and independent media outlets alike. Citizens throughout the U.S.A. cannot allow the local, state or federal government, let alone private corporations to muscle out journalists and private individuals who refuse to look the other way when the government of the people stops working for the people.
The defense of independent media and the producers of its content is paramount in order to maintain the ability of independent journalists to cover the workings of American government, providing their readers news “bereft” of the spin of mainstream media sources, while maintaining the sanctity of the First Amendment.