Has journalism come to the point that the equal rights of citizens are sometimes in conflict with the special privileges legally accorded to journalists?
The excellent presentation given by Erik Ugland and Jennifer Henderson made me consider the question. They made the point that the law addresses the question from at least three different standpoints -- constitutional law, statutory law, and the quasi-legal realm of rules established to regulate access by journalists to people in power.
Many arguments over who is a journalist result from people arguing from different of these standpoints, without being clear or even conscious they are doing so.
The constitutional and statutory traditions are the essential ones from a long-term societal perspective and break down roughly as follows:
The constitutional perspective, embodied in practice by the U.S. Supreme Court, proceeds from basic ethical principles towards the establishment of certain guaranteed rights for all citizens.
The statutory perspective, carried out mainly by appellate and state courts, applies established laws as a basis for creating policies that confer special privileges on different groups or occupations (e.g., journalists).
A critical difference between the two perspectives is that the constitutional outlook is egalitarian, aimed at safeguarding the rights of all citizens, whereas the statutory perspective is aimed at safeguarding the privileges of certain groups based on their demonstrated degree of expertise.
Journalists are not licensed but statutory laws, varying by jurisdiction, often make a case for privileging journalists based on their demonstrated level of expertise.
What interests me is that last word, expertise.
A strong tradition in journalism scholarship identifies the exalted role of the expert in ''objective'' journalism as a source of many modern journalistic ills. Especially, the estrangement of the reader from a journalism that appears to be interested only in the views of doctors, lawyers, high government officials, any ''expert,'' or the author of a recently published book.
Usually, discussion of journalism's ''expert'' problem is limited to asking why journalists favor experts so heavily as sources for information, and how skewed and unequal a picture of society results.
But what interests me, after listening to Ugland and Henderson, is how the law labels journalists themselves as experts in a practice called journalism.
This suggests a kind of unresolved paradox at work. Journalism's highest ideals are egalitarian, but somehow its practitioners are specially privileged. A journalist should show the world as it is, but the law tells him that he has an elevated position and view. He stands above the world in a special way.
Doctors face a similar paradox. They've got to understand their own ordinary physical selves well, in order to understand their patients well. A good journalist, like a good doctor, should compensate for his legally elevated social status by understanding his role as an ordinary citizen well. It's really the only option he has, to stay rooted in the street-level citizen's view. One might expand on this just a bit to say that a good journalist, like a good doctor, needs to keep in view his essential humanity, his complete vulnerability and ordinary nature as an individual human being.
But the evidence shows that journalists often lose this view. They posture on television, they pose in magazines like celebrities, they elbow for the best seats at press conferences, and they write puff pieces about powerful people in order to maintain access to them. The editor of the Washington Post brags that he does not vote, in order to maintain his special, neutral, privileged ''journalist'' status.
The point is that journalists appear to confuse their constitutional and statutory roles, and especially to identify themselves personally with the high status that the latter confers on them as journalists, instead of the rights and obligations implied by the former.
The journalism profession is based on principles and rights, but journalistic practice reeks of infatuation with privilege. Journalists humbly talk equality, but arrogantly strut like experts.