Peach State’s at­tempt to sti­fle re­porters is the pits

The Buffalo News - - OPINION - Mar­garet Sullivan is The Wash­ing­ton Post’s me­dia columnist and for­mer edi­tor of The Buf­falo News.

When Richard Grif­fiths, pres­i­dent of the Ge­or­gia First Amend­ment Foun­da­tion, heard about the bill filed last week in his state’s House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives, he thought for a mo­ment that it was an April Fools joke. If only. The bill – a pro­posal to over­see jour­nal­ists sponsored by six Re­pub­li­can law­mak­ers – is no wacky prank.

Pretty clearly, it’s an ef­fort to lock watch­dog re­porters in a sound­proof ken­nel where the pub­lic can’t hear their warn­ing barks.

“Frankly, this is the kind of pro­posal one would ex­pect to sur­face in a banana repub­lic, not the Peach State,” Grif­fiths said.

Echo­ing the govern­ment’s Min­istry of Truth in Ge­orge Or­well’s dystopian novel, “1984,” the pro­posal would es­tab­lish a “Jour­nal­ism Ethics Board” to create pro­fes­sional stan­dards for news peo­ple.

And, among other pro­vi­sions, it would re­quire re­porters to sur­ren­der their record­ings, pho­to­graphs and notes to an in­ter­vie­wee upon re­quest. If a news out­let re­fuses, it would be sub­ject to le­gal ac­tion and fines.

James Salzer, who has been cov­er­ing pol­i­tics for the At­lantic Jour­nal and Con­sti­tu­tion for decades, ob­serves a glar­ing irony in the bill.

The state leg­is­la­ture “long ago ex­empted it­self from the Ge­or­gia Open Records Act, which ap­plies to all other gov­ern­men­tal en­ti­ties in the state,” he wrote.

Un­sur­pris­ingly, the bill’s chief spon­sor, Andy Welch, has been un­happy with his me­dia cov­er­age.

Welch is leav­ing of­fice, but his un­wel­come part­ing gift will live on into the next ses­sion, where its very pres­ence may have a chilling ef­fect on jour­nal­ists.

It sends a clear mes­sage that Big Brother is ready to pounce.

It may go nowhere – there is that lit­tle ob­sta­cle called the First Amend­ment to be con­sid­ered, after all – but it’s still trou­bling.

Mean­while, the state’s politi­cians cer­tainly seem to need the scru­tiny.

Ge­or­gia pol­i­tics have been very much in the na­tional spot­light be­cause of voter-sup­pres­sion com­plaints, with the press play­ing a laud­able role in bring­ing prob­lems to light.

Re­pub­li­can Gov. Brian Kemp (who un­til last fall was sec­re­tary of state, also known as the guy who su­per­vises elec­tions) was sued for sup­press­ing mi­nor­ity votes after an As­so­ci­ated Press in­ves­ti­ga­tion. The AP re­ported, shortly be­fore Novem­ber’s midterm elec­tion, that his of­fice has not ap­proved thou­sands of voter reg­is­tra­tions.

Kemp – who nar­rowly won the gov­er­nor’s race against Demo­cratic ris­ing star Stacey Abrams – said that his ac­tions merely fol­lowed a 2017 state law that re­quires voter reg­is­tra­tion in­for­ma­tion to match pre­cisely with Depart­ment of Mo­tor Ve­hi­cles or So­cial Se­cu­rity Ad­min­is­tra­tion data.

But civil rights ad­vo­cates say that law dis­pro­por­tion­ately hurts black and Latino vot­ers, and Abrams has called Kemp an “ar­chi­tect of voter sup­pres­sion.”

After much cov­er­age and crit­i­cism, Kemp signed leg­is­la­tion last week that ad­dresses some of the com­plaints. He did it qui­etly, on the last day of the leg­isla­tive ses­sion, and be­hind closed doors.

Would he have done any­thing at all with­out the AP’s in­ves­ti­ga­tion and in­tense me­dia scru­tiny from na­tional and lo­cal jour­nal­ists? It seems un­likely.

There may be no di­rect tie be­tween the vot­ing-sup­pres­sion con­cerns and the pro­posed jour­nal­ism bill.

But con­trol­ling the pesky press corps would mean one less an­noy­ance on the road to po­lit­i­cal malfea­sance.

Granted, jour­nal­ists are far from per­fect, and their prac­tices de­serve to be held to rea­son­able stan­dards. But there al­ready is pretty good agree­ment about jour­nal­is­tic

Mar­garet Sullivan

ethics, avail­able for all to see.

Re­spectable news or­ga­ni­za­tions have codes of ethics – many of them avail­able to the pub­lic. The So­ci­ety of Pro­fes­sional Jour­nal­ists has a well-ac­cepted code as well.

As for the would-be re­quire­ment to turn over what’s ob­tained dur­ing news­gath­er­ing, Cynthia Counts, an At­lanta-based First Amend­ment lawyer, told Columbia Jour­nal­ism Re­view that the bill’s lan­guage is in di­rect con­flict with the state’s re­porter-priv­i­lege pro­tec­tions.

“You want the press to be in­de­pen­dent,” she told CJR’s Stephen Fowler. Clearly, not every­one agrees. Re­pub­li­can leg­is­la­tors in In­di­ana and South Carolina have at var­i­ous times pro­posed bills to con­trol jour­nal­ists, too.

Some of th­ese are lit­tle more than pub­lic­ity stunts, and that may be true of the Ge­or­gia bill.

But - in a cli­mate in which the press in­creas­ingly is un­der siege, es­pe­cially from Pres­i­dent Trump - th­ese ef­forts send an un­sub­tle mes­sage. It sounds a lot like a warn­ing: Ease up, or else. If some politi­cians had their way, re­porters would do noth­ing but churn out pro­pa­ganda for the Min­istry of Truth. Sorry, this isn’t Or­well’s Ocea­nia. It’s Amer­ica.

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