As we’ve explained repeatedly here before, just because you don’t like what journalists are doing, it doesn’t mean that it’s illegal, immoral or unethical. Apparently, Andy Welch, an outgoing state representative in Georgia, didn’t get the message, given his attempt to create a Journalism Ethics Board in his state:
The measure was sponsored by Rep. Andy Welch, R-McDonough, a lawyer who has expressed frustration with what he saw as bias from a TV reporter who asked him questions about legislation recently. He said he thinks the profession could benefit by setting ethical standards for all journalists to follow. Five other Republicans signed on to sponsor the bill.
Welch, who was unopposed in his November 2018 reelection bid, submitted this bill with the approach of a kid pulling a Halloween prank that involved a flaming bag of dog poo:
Welch announced he would be resigning from the General Assembly after the session, which ended Tuesday. However, his bill remains alive for consideration during the 2020 session.
The bill would force the chancellor of the University of Georgia System to set up the board, which I hope would be referred to as “The JEB.” It would also require “The JEB” to establish the “canons of ethics” for journalism in the state, a “voluntary accreditation” system, a grievance process and a series of sanctions for people who violated whatever it is that this group established as “canons.”
Beyond these rather annoying bad ideas comes some horribly bad ones:
If approved, the bill would also mandate that anyone interviewed by the media would be able to request and receive copies of photographs and audio and video recordings taken by reporters and photographers. Such copies would have to be provided free of cost, even though state and local governments are allowed to charge the public for copies of any documents it provides.
If a media outlet refuses to provide the copies, it would be subject to a lawsuit and a civil penalty, under the bill.
Various media organizations, including the National Press Photographers Association and the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, have already spoken out against this idea. I offered a law expert/journalism faculty member a chance to offer some thoughts on this thing happening in his state, but he declined, noting it wasn’t “worth my getting involved.”
He’s right that this is way beneath him to dignify something this dumb with a response. Fortunately, there’s very little beneath me, so I figured I’d outline a few points that might inform or amuse anyone worried about this:
We already have something like this, only better, clearer and non-Draconian. The Society for Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which you can find here, outlines the ways in which ethical journalists are expected to behave as they ply their trade. Michael King, president of the NPPA, pointed this out as he highlighted both groups’ codes in his statement about the bill:
Ironically, the bill calls for the creation of an ethics board to be housed at the University of Georgia-Athens’ Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, where NPPA is headquartered. We have confirmed that the bill was introduced without their knowledge or approval.
Robust codes of ethics — including NPPA’s and SPJ’s — have existed for decades and are widely accepted as industry standards. No agent of any government should play any role in setting ethical or accreditation standards for journalism.
What you don’t see in either code is a “crime and punishment” section, because, um… that’s not the point of an ethical code. In couching his “law” as an “ethics” issue, Welch is trying to circumvent the First Amendment, which a) prohibits most of what he’s trying to accomplish and b) was established as a Constitutional right for a reason (namely the Founding Fathers saw the importance of a free and unfettered press, even if Andy Welch doesn’t).
Something shouldn’t be illegal just because you don’t like it. We pretty much covered this concept with our look at John Oliver, Bob Murray and the infamous Mr. Nutterbutter, but for those of you who missed it, enjoy this link.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Welch and several other legislators don’t like the way the media down there keep digging into their sketchy behavior. Welch himself was rather perturbed with questions from a TV reporter that he felt were biased. What those questions entailed, the AJC doesn’t make clear, but given his thin skin on this topic, I’m guessing they were only slightly tougher than this hard-hitting set of inquiries:
It’s unfortunate that Welch doesn’t like being questioned on things that he’s doing as a legislator, but that’s part of the gig when you take the job. (It’s like taking a job as the person who has to empty the Port-O-Johns at the county fair and then complaining about all the crap you have to deal with (literally) every day. As nice as it would be for you to mandate that people “hold it until they get home” so that your job would be easier, that’s not gonna happen.)
King notes in the NPPA statement that the organization will keep an eye on this bill for a variety of reasons including “the abrupt resignation of its author from the Georgia General Assembly.” The purpose of the media in this country is to hold our leaders to account for whatever it is we think the citizenry needs to know, which for me will include what led to this “abrupt resignation.” (Google news alert, here I come!)
We’re paid to be nosy and dig into stuff, even if it’s stuff you don’t like.
We don’t license journalists in this country, something for which Welch should be thankful. As bad of an idea as this is, and as horrible as it would be for journalism, and as unconstitutional as it is, I would LOVE to see this thing happen for JUST ONE DAY for one simple reason: Andy Welch has a blog.
(Irony alert: It’s tagline? “The Heart of Every Good Partnership is Trust”)
When people like Welch think about journalism, journalists and media-based endeavors, they tend to think of whatever TV reporter rubbed them the wrong way with a question five minutes earlier. What they don’t realize is that we are a long way from the days in which area “journalism” consisted of one or two major metro newspapers and three TV stations.
These days, anyone with a phone and access to an app can become a journalist in the most basic sense. When you yammer on Facebook about the annoying kid holding up the line at the cafeteria or you tweet about your landlord being a convicted murderer, that counts as journalism.
Welch’s hard-hitting expose on Week Seven of the Legislative session, his look at the “Hands-Free Georgia Act” (which sounds like something out of a “Chainsaw Massacre” movie) and his post about the success of the Locust Grove High School baseball team, in which he has serious antecedent-pronoun-agreement issues also count as journalism in this new digital realm. Some of this journalism may be intriguing and some of it may be painfully dull, but it’s all given the same wide berth to operate unfettered under the banner of journalism.
I can’t say what will happen for sure with all this, but if I had to guess, I’d wager heavy on these two things occurring:
- This bill will die fast and quiet.
- Every media organization in the state that could have been subjected to “The JEB” will spend the next four weeks digging into anything Welch has ever done and trying to figure out what led to his “abrupt resignation” from the statehouse.