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Editorial: Ethics in Journalism Act threatens operation of a free press, and that's a very bad idea

“Why should freedom of speech and freedom of press be allowed? Why should a government which is doing what it believes to be right allow itself to be criticized? It would not allow opposition by lethal weapons. Ideas are much more fatal things than guns.” —Vladimir Lennin

When a state legislator who is resigning files a bill on the last day of the General Assembly’s annual session that is potentially controversial but also inane, your first inclination is to ignore it and forget about it.

Unfortunately, Rep. Andy Welch’s effort to weaken existing protections for material gathered by journalists in Georgia, and to require the formation of a state-appointed oversight committee to create and enforce a code of ethics for journalists, has too much potential for harm to be ignored.

Were Welch but one of the many gadflies who have held a seat in the state House, his legislation might not be worthy of a second glance. But the lawmaker, an attorney by trade, was among a short list of nominees presented to former Gov. Nathan Deal last year for consideration for appointment to the state’s Supreme Court. Think about that for a minute.

One can only hope that if such a list is compiled for a future government, his name will not be included again.

The Times editorial board

Staff members

  • Norman Baggs, general manager
  • Shannon Casas, editor in chief

Community members

  • Cheryl Brown
  • David George
  • Mandy Harris
  • Brent Hoffman
  • J.C. Smith
  • Tom Vivelo

On the last day of this year’s session of the General Assembly, Welch, having already announced he was resigning when the session was over, filed for consideration House Bill 734. Despite his resignation, his bill remains alive, has other sponsors, and will be considered when the legislature meets next year.

The legislation basically would do two diverse things: It would create a Journalism Ethics Board, the members of which would be selected from the news media and academia, with initial appointments made by the Chancellor of the University System of Georgia; and it would require that any person interviewed by a member of the media be given access to all video, photographs, notes, etc. of that interview, whether used or not, if they should so request.

Philosophically, the legislation represents a direct assault on the concept of a free press operating without restraint by the government. It outlines a structure whereby a state appointed board would have authority to develop an “accreditation” process for journalists based upon a canon of ethics that it would adopt, and be empowered to investigate and “sanction” accredited news organizations based on complaints filed with the board.

Clearly the legislation feeds into the national anti-media frenzy created by the “enemy of the people” and “fake news” declarations of President Trump, which have generated sentiment by his supporters against journalists of every type and at every size news operation in the country.

Which isn’t to say that some of the complaints about inaccurate and biased reporting aren’t legitimate. They are, but not to the extent that there is reason to believe putting the press under the thumb of government supervision is an appropriate measure to take. There is a difference between unethical reporting and reporting that doesn’t tell you what you want to hear, just as there is a difference between the reporting of a professional  journalist and the potential propaganda of a press release issued by the government.

Too many people, apparently including some in state government, don’t understand that difference.

In addition to the journalistic oversight board, the legislation’s focus on forcing journalists to turn over their work product to interviewees upon request may seem reasonable at first blush, but it is one of those “slippery slope” concepts that could easily escalate into something ominous.

Georgia currently has what is called a “shield law,” which protects public disclosure of information gathered by journalists short of the very rare mandate of a court ruling. Without it, much of the investigative work done by journalists wouldn’t happen, as sources would be reluctant to step forward if they thought they could not be protected.

That “shield law” would be in conflict with the pending bill’s requirements related to interviews, and the bill says any conflicting laws are to be repealed. If the bill passes, an argument could be made that the law protecting the investigative efforts of journalists is no longer valid.

It’s hard to imagine that HB 734, were it ever actually to be approved, would hold up to a court challenge. There’s still that worrisome little concept of press freedom spelled out pretty plainly in the U.S. Constitution that would override such a state law. But it is still bothersome to even consider that such was ever introduced in the first place.

Most reputable journalists perform their duties ethically and within the bounds of existing codes of conduct as crafted by national media organizations or the individual news companies for which they work. The industry is self-policing in part because there is no mandate, nor authority, for government oversight.

One major flaw of the pending legislation is that it never defines the term “journalist.” Since many members of the General Assembly write occasional columns, which they offer to local newspapers for publication in print and online, and some author their own blogs in the digital space, we can only assume they, too, would be governed by the new law and subject to its ethical requirements. That could be interesting.

From a local standpoint, it is incredibly disappointing to see that a member of the Hall County delegation is one of those who signed on as a cosponsor of the bill. Rep. Timothy Barr of the 103rd House district, which represents a portion of South Hall, has given his support to the effort. We hope he can be convinced of the folly of such legislation before next year’s session, and if not that voters will remember his position relative to a free press come the next election cycle.

Bottom line, a state representative apparently didn’t like the way he was treated in a television interview and went overboard trying to address the issue with a new law. Normally that would be worth a good laugh and consideration as yet another bit of craziness in the state’s legislative body. But these days nothing that portends to curtail Constitutional freedoms is a laughing matter, and those who support using the power of the government to control the media espouse a political philosophy closer in nature to the state-sponsored propaganda units of communist powers than the democratic republic of the United States.

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