Journalists don't need federal favoritism
Jonathan Ballew lifted his press credential above his head like a shield. It offered no protection when a Chicago police officer in riot gear blasted him with a stream of pepper spray that clouded his camera lens.
Journalists in other cities were pelted with rubber bullets and pepper balls, struck with police batons, fogged with tear gas, shoved to the ground and arrested while covering Black Lives Matter protests in the days following George Floyd's killing, according to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.
Cops weren't the only ones attacking reporters and photographers who turned up to document the historic demonstrations. In Pittsburgh, protesters swarmed KDKA-TV videographer Ian Smith and smashed his camera. In Oakland, two photojournalists were robbed at gunpoint.
It's been a dangerous year to report the news. Since 2020 began, the Press Freedom Tracker has tallied 141 physical attacks on journalists, 50 arrests, 39 assaults resulting in damaged equipment and nine cases where police searched or seized cameras and personal gear.
That's enough to convince some well-meaning people that there oughta be a law.
A coalition of news industry trade groups are asking Congress to pass the Journalist Protection Act, which would create new federal crimes for those caught attacking members of the press. Senate Bill 751 says a person convicted of causing bodily injury to a journalist can face up to three years in prison. Causing serious bodily injury doubles the sentence to six years.
Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Robert Menendez, D-N.J., introduced the legislation. Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif., filed a House version.
Proponents have grave concerns about an inhospitable climate for journalism. They've correctly diagnosed a problem, but their solution misses the mark.
In order to single out journalists for protection, the government first has to determine who qualifies. The language in S. 751 is as inclusive as possible -- "an employee, independent contractor or agent of an entity or service that disseminates news or information" -- but U.S. attorneys with wide prosecutorial discretion may be tempted to set their own parameters.
If large-market television crews and reporters from the major national newspapers can successfully invoke the law, will it be applied just as seamlessly for independent bloggers and podcasters? How about newly minted citizen journalists who witness breaking news and decide to start documenting it?