Why Can't A D.C. Blogger Get Public Records?
Much as its critics and even a few of its practitioners may protest to the contrary, journalism is no profession. It requires no specialized education, has no self-governing code of ethics, and has no self-policing professional organization with any power over its members.
Journalism is a craft, one that anyone is free to exercise. But journalism is an unusual craft, in that its purpose and activities are specifically protected by the Constitution.
So when government agencies, businesses and courts get into the question of just who qualifies to be a journalist, things get murky very quickly. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), which operates Metro, has informed the excellent Greater Greater Washington blog that it is not part of the news media and is therefore not eligible to make public records requests and get a fee waiver, as reporters from real journalism outlets do.
Greater Greater Washington, a winner of my old Blog of the Month Award (hey, maybe we should resurrect that program) is one of the most energetic and informative blogs in the region. It--well, he: founder and chief blogger David Alpert--does original reporting on exactly the issues that Metro concerns itself with: transportation, regional planning, development. And lately, Alpert has been expanding, involving some of his most dedicated and well-informed readers as budding reporters on the blog. One of those nascent reporters, Michael P, sought some documents from Metro, whose lawyer denied him a fee waiver on the grounds that the GGW blog doesn't "publish or broadcast news to the public," but "merely makes it available" on a web site.
It's hard to imagine a more specious distinction at this stage of our information society's development. Let's say, God forbid, that the owners of this here Washington Post decide at some point in the future that it makes sense to publish online-only, with no print product. Would that then eliminate The Washington Post's claim to be part of the news media? Obviously not, so Metro's position is purely an attempt to define out of existence blogs that perform a traditional role of holding government accountable, but do so exclusively online.
(Here are a couple of pieces I've done on the rising presence and ever more important role blogs are playing in political journalism, one on Virginia's impressive collection of political blogs, and one on Josh Marshall, the creator of Talking Points Memo.)
To be fair to Metro and the many other institutions in society that deal with the media, they need to be able to draw some useful distinction between a serious blog that seeks to disseminate news and Joe Blogger who is writing for himself and perhaps a few friends. Should every person with a Facebook account have equal access to sitting in the press seats at a Metro board meeting, getting easier access to documents and being able to attend news conferences? I'm loathe to exclude anyone, especially since the media's sole claim to special access is to be a representative of the public. But you can quickly see how this would get completely out of hand.
Sports teams have embraced bloggers even as they discern differences and weed out guys who just think it might be cool to sit in the press box. Government agencies need to learn how to make similar distinctions. Judging a blog by its traffic might be one factor, but it's far from a perfect one: There are plenty of areas of government that might be legitimately covered by a blog that has a tiny audience because it covers a very narrow subject area (how many people would read a blog that covers, say, the Arlington planning board? But such a blog should have complete access to that board's doings.)
The tricky bit here is that no one wants the government to be in the business of judging blogs by their content. So I sympathize with the Metro lawyer who had to figure this one out. But Congress took a useful step toward a workable definition of journalist when it amended the Freedom of Information Act last year to say that "a representative of the news media' means any person or entity that gathers information of potential interest to a segment of the public, uses its editorial skills to turn the raw materials into a distinct work, and distributes that work to an audience."
If that excludes the many, many blogs that just riff on news gathered by others, so be it. Let them invest in some reporting before they seek access. But the definition must be broad enough to grant access to any and all who seek to inform the public--no matter what their political perspective and no matter what medium they use to reach an audience.
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