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Don’t let Obama define ‘journalist’

President Barack Obama

President Barack Obama

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Updated: July 5, 2013 6:11AM

The conventional wisdom is that, of the scandals swirling around the Obama administration, the one that worries the public the least is the spying on journalists.

This reading holds that the Internal Revenue Service’s targeting of conservatives resonates with more Americans because the tax man touches every life. That makes sense.

The IRS wrongdoing holds special significance for Americans on the right because, at the very least, it confirms that the permanent government of regulators and tax collectors is populated by Democratic Party sympathizers and public employee union members, both beneficiaries of big government and unfriendly to the idea of limited government and its advocates. But all Americans are, or should be, alarmed by the evasiveness and stonewalling of the IRS chieftains called before the Congress — a troubling display of the permanent unelected government sidestepping accountability to the people’s elected representatives.

The Benghazi furor over whether State Department personnel were adequately protected and whether the administration attempted some sort of cover-up is freighted with the knowledge that four Americans died.

And polling supports the notion that Americans view these two scandals as more significant than the Justice Department’s secret seizure of AP phone records and the electronic tracking and labeling of a Fox News journalist as a potential criminal in leak investigations.

Yet, I suspect that to the people this matters, it really matters. And I’m not talking just about those of us in the media. The Internet culture is all about freedom, and Justice’s intimidation of the press is an offense that hits close to home. The political class understands the founders included press freedom in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights because it, like the other protected rights there, is fundamental to preserving our democratic republic.

Some on the left and in the media are so emotionally and intellectually invested in Barack Obama’s presidency and its liberal agenda that they want to help Obama find a way out of this mess. They’ve settled on a federal shield law that would ostensibly protect journalists from being forced to reveal sources.

Though long a goal of many in the media, a shield law is not a good idea. The Justice Department already has guidelines designed to protect journalists, but Attorney General Eric Holder’s regime violated them. Zealots in a future Justice would ignore a shield law.

More important, passage of a shield law would be saying politicians can write rules for journalists, even say who qualifies as a journalist. In one bill, it’s “a person who, for financial gain or livelihood, is engaged in journalism.” That would exclude a lot of people on the Internet. Sen. Dick Durbin opines: “What is a journalist today in 2013? We know it’s someone that works for Fox or AP, but does it include a blogger? Does it include someone who is tweeting? Are these people journalists and entitled to constitutional protection? We need to ask 21st century questions about a provision that was written over 200 years ago.”

The First Amendment, written when press meant print, accommodated broadcast media. It would be unconscionable not to include the Internet and the people there engaged in citizen journalism untethered to conventional media and a paycheck.

Years ago in a newsroom discussion about the news business, a veteran at United Press International, Paul Dix, quipped, “I call myself a journalist not because I take special pride in the term but because it covers a wide variety of sins.” Amen. Butt out, Congress.

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