I understand the motivation behind the just-proposed Journalist Protection Act, which would make it a federal crime to attack those involved in reporting the news.

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Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the Institute’s First Amendment Center.

The legislation comes at a time of particularly vocal attacks on news operations and individual reporters, many of which stem from the highest office in the land.

I admire the goal — preventing or penalizing misguided thugs who would censor through violence. And I salute California Rep. Eric Swalwell for introducing it in an era in which support for journalism is at an all-time low.

But some part of me — the free press advocate in me — hopes the proposed act never becomes law. Not because journalists don’t need protection, but because I fear unintended consequences. As the old maxim goes, “No good deed goes unpunished.”

The great power, and the proper position, of a free press has always been that it represents “the people.” The press is — simply and magnificently — not a group apart, but part of that group. It is not made up of “elites” or players united in some grand conspiracy to control the news or steer the nation, as some grandstanding politicians claim, but a disjointed gaggle of vocal, well-informed fellow citizens, who are employed to report on behalf of us all. Those who would damage democracy’s checks and balances by isolating the “watchdogs on government” from fellow citizens would like nothing better than to have journalists themselves give credence to such a separation.

In a Feb. 5 news release, Rep. Swalwell makes his good case for the Journalist Protection Act: “President Donald Trump’s campaign and administration have created a toxic atmosphere. It’s not just about labeling reports of his constant falsehoods as #FakeNews — it’s his casting of media personalities and outlets as anti-American targets, and encouraging people to engage in violence.”

Swalwell, while conceding that not all attacks against journalists in the United States can be connected to Trump, said nonetheless that “such antagonistic communications help encourage others to think, regardless of their views, that violence against people engaged in journalism is more acceptable.”

Journalism groups also noted, in the news release, the dangers their members now face. Broadcasters in the field often work alone or with a single colleague, said Charlie Braico, president of the National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians. “With their expensive and cumbersome equipment, they are easy and tempting prey for anti-media extremists and thieves.”

“Dozens of physical assaults on journalists doing their jobs were documented by the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in 2017,” said Rick Blum, director of News Media for Open Government. “Physical violence and intimidation should never get in the way of covering police, protesters, presidents and other public matters.”

The tracker that Blum refers to is a new database, launched and operated by the Committee to Protect Journalists, which logs arrests, harassment and physical attacks on journalists. As of Feb. 7, it showed that since January 2017, 30 reporters in the U.S. have been attacked while covering protests and two reporters had been assaulted by politicians. (Note: The Newseum is among the journalism groups supporting the database project.)

Globally, the situation is much grimmer: According to Freedom House, an international freedom advocacy group, barely 13 percent of the world’s population lives in nations where the press is considered free. The CPJ reports two journalists killed thus far in 2018, 262 imprisoned since 2017, and 58 journalists missing around the world.

So to all those critics who already are attacking Swalwell’s bill as unneeded or rooted in partisan politics — sorry, but the threat to journalists is real from those who consider violence an acceptable form of press criticism.

Still, we should be wary of giving journalists a special place in the zone of laws that already protect us all from assault, battery or worse. Granted, the proposed act could be an alternative when local officials refuse to follow up on an attack — or do so ineffectively. But I like the old newsgathering maxim that “journalists have no more rights than anyone else ... but also have no fewer rights.”

Better to encourage police and prosecutors to zealously do their jobs when an attack occurs. Better we hold accountable politicians and others who — for political gain or other unscrupulous motives — choose to simply taunt the news media rather than doing the hard work of legitimate, fact-based criticism.

The Journalist Protection Act is prompted by sincere and worthy motives — and there is a sickness in the land today that condones and encourages threats and violence against journalists. But a free press is better protected by laws that protect us all.

Gene Policinski, president and chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, can be reached at gpolicinski@newseum.org.

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(35) comments

oldhomey

Buggs in his 7:04am seems to imply that I ducked out on an error I made last week in a comment on another story. Au contraire, Buggs. Once the mistake was pointed out to me on Feb. 10, I immediately acknowledged it and apologized. I have always thought it is best to admit when you are wrong. You ought to try that policy, too, Buggs. Here is the apology I made after that mistake:

Just so I am not going to be accused of being a snake trying to slither away from my own mistake, I will publish a truly bone-headed error I made on this string. Mea culpa. I deserve all the scorn that can be mustered for this one. My apologies to ou. My thanks to kingman for correcting me, and my congratulations to Buggs, who gets a good chance to deservedly lord it all over me. Much as I hate to do this to myself, I will showcase my mistake here:

oldhomey Feb 9, 2018 4:50pm
Wow. Jimmy Carter wasn't elected until 1978, not sworn in until 1979. He must have been one mean operator to gin up a fake oil shortage two years before he took the reins of the government. Was that the stroke that got him elected? I guess as a Democrat I am just to know. Right ou?

oldhomey Feb 9, 2018 9:56pm
I guess as a Democrat that I am just too dumb to know how Jimmy Carter did all of this under our noses is what I meant to say, but I am too dumb to proof read my own posts before sending them. Ah well.

kingman10 Feb 10, 2018 7:19am
just point of order, Carter was elected in 76, sworn in January of '77. However Hoaxer and his memory is totally flawed. the oil shortage started with Nixon and the arab oil embargo. Long lines at the pump and rapidly rising gas prices fueled inflation and stagnated the economy. Remember that Hoaxer?

Buggs Raplin Feb 10, 2018 3:15pm
Oh my God, you've corrected oldhomey. The sanctimonious oldhomey has been corrected by one his disciples. How interesting. Note to Tribune: take this down asap as oldhomey has been caught being stupid.

Buggs Raplin Feb 10, 2018 8:58am Ahem cough cough. Jimmy Carter was elected in 1976.

Buggs Raplin

I did not catch your apology. I apologize whenever I make a mistake, which is not very often.

kingman10

oh really, even Briebart apologized for the lie of pizzagate, you never have. almost every one of your post is a lie, a total lie, and nothing but a lie.

oldhomey

caught you in another lie, Buggs. You make "mistakes" all the time (though others might regard them not as mistakes but out and out lies). You get called on them constantly, but you seldom acknowledge them or apologize for them.

Buggs Raplin

Josef Goebbles, the Nazi propaganda minister, would be saddened by the decline of our mainstream media, if he were alive today. Too bad Germany didn't have the alternative media that we have today to combat all the lies and disinformation and bullsh*t from the mainstream press. The reign of the MSM is over, except for gullibles like kingman

oldhomey

Buggs apparently is a poor reader of history. Josef Goebbels WAS the alternative media in Germany in the 1930s. The gullibles for whatever reason bought into his lies, and he shut down Germany's mainstream media. That is why we should fear the alt right media that is flexing its muscles in our own society today. I suggest, Buggs, as a primer, that you read William Shirer's Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. You'd like Shirer. He was a maverick reporter who was dropped by CBS News in the 1950s and decided to jump into the German Nazi archives, combining what he found there with his own first person reportage from Germany in the 1930s, writing what is probably still the best book on your heroes in the Reich ever written, now more than 50 years old.

Buggs Raplin

I've read the Shirer book (twice) and a biography of Goebbels. He was the Nazi propaganda minister, and he was brilliant at it. I've always thought he'd be a great admirer over the American propaganda system, and its control over the public mind, being a propagandist would lament its deterioration.

kingman10

exactly homey, and buggs claims to be a history major. I think the evidence is clear he is not. Hitler didn't have the internet of course to spread his hate message, so he printed up his own paper and handed it out to the public. that was the alternative media of the day. It wasn't long after that when he rose to power the radio became his too, a perfect tool for propaganda, and he was a master at it. Today, Goebbels would of used the internet in the same way as Alex Jones and others, spreading nationalism, hatred, lies and conspiracies in the same way. Interesting how history repeats itself, and the gullible hasn't a clue.

oldhomey

Okay, Buggs, since you have read Rise and Fall, now read Shirer's memoir of his days as a reporter in the 1930s, and get a pretty gritty, upclose feel for how the fascists rose to power through deception and fear. It is, I think, the second of a three volume memoir, and Shirer more than any other journalist was rubbing shoulders with German politicians at the time, the Nazis included, and of what he describes, some of it seems very similar to the tactics the far right is using in this country right now.

Buggs Raplin

Gee, I'm well aware of how Hitler came to power. It was primarily resentment over the Versailles Treaty, and the economic depression affecting the world following the Wall St. crash in '29. If the US had not gotten in WWI, the combatants would have eventually ended it on equitable terms, and Hitler would never have come to power. The seeds of WWII were planted in the Versailles Treaty, or the "November Criminals" as Hitler referred to the Germans agreeing to that treaty. It resonated with enough Germans that the Nazi Party rose to prominence..so much so that Hindenburg agreed to appoint Hitler as chancellor, a position he then used to obtain absolute power upon Hindenburg's death. Goebbles then kept the German people under Hitler's sway with propaganda. He obviously also helped Hitler with propaganda to attain his rise in the political arena in the 1920's after Hitler's release from prison. Goebbels was a master of propaganda-the same type we receive as 'news' from the mainstream media. The alternative media has risen to oppose that-to give us the truth, not propaganda.

kingman10

wrong again buggs. Hitler big claim during his rise to power, and he wrote it in his book, was to blame to Jews for all that ails Germany. It was the Jews to blame for the economy, for unemployment, for poverty. He claimed the Jews were to blame for the Versailles treaty. It was us against them, he needed a perceived common enemy to rile the people up. He used alternative media and lies and vast conspiracies against the Jews. Sounds exactly like the alt media today, just replace the Jews with Muslims to hate. Blame all opposition using a "liberal" label. Replace the free media with alt. media to spread false conspiracies. Replace real science with pseudo science. Keep repeating the same lies over and over, and there you have it, modern fascism that people need to be aware of. Of course some are too far gone to ever realize they are just repeating history.

oldhomey

Yes, Buggs, alternative media, like Alex Jones. I invite any and all to watch him and tell us that he is a man of solid facts and sober analysis. And when he is caught lying, he doesn't care. Something like Herr Goebbels, no?

oldhomey

I agree that making special laws to protect journalists is probably not a good idea, despite the anger, hatred and misconceptions about journalism expressed already here by Buggs, bozo and mocha. That sort of anger, hatred and misconception is dangerous not only to journalism, but to the entire underpinnings of our way of life and government.

But the problem of making special laws to protect journalists is, perhaps, singling out people who gather and report the news for special protections. If you do that, then you would have to define what legally constitutes a "journalist".

The beauty and the agony of journalism is that anybody can be a "journalist" simply by calling himself or herself a journalist. It is simply the act of free speech. You don't have to be on the staff of a news organization, whether it be a print, radio, television or online company. You can set up shop on your kitchen table with your computer, your own blog and a telephone, and you can say you are a journalist. Whether the rest of the world takes notice or not is another question.

But if the government demands that a "journalist" must be a credentialed member of some sort of news organization, we would be treading into dangerous ground. Many important stories in our history both nationally and locally were first exposed by stubborn, lone-wolf reporters who found something wrong in society and harped at it until mainstream media and John Q. Public took notice. Remember Seymour Hersh and the My Lai massacres in Vietnam? He was a freelance reporter working on his own, paying his own way, and no big news organization would buy his story from him. He finally got it published by a tiny anti-war organization, but once the truth started coming out through that effort, the New Yorker bought the full story from Hersh, and the rest was history.

Mainstream media is a powerful, effective and responsible institution that gives us reliable information day in and day out. But it isn't always right. When it is wrong, it retracts its errors and apologizes publicly. And sometimes it misses or conveniently overlooks uncomfortable stories, though it seems there is always a lone wolf reporter out there that remediates those weaknesses, too.

So we should not set journalists up as some special fraternity in order to protect them from buffoons and zealots, because journalists at the end of the day are simply members of society at large exercising freedom of speech by highlighting the events of the day.

Unfortunately, this system also means we have to suffer bigots and fanatical extremists like Alex Jones, Fox News commentators and even Russian fake news bots like Guccifer 2.0 that call themselves "journalists" but are in truth purveyors of untruths and false information designed to push gullible people toward bad political agendas and policies. Too bad, but I would rather live with that than have a system in which a government decides who is and who is not a journalist.

Buggs Raplin

It bears repeating. The MSM's monopoly on the news is over thanks to people like Alex Jones, Jeff Rense, Matt Drudge, Michael Rivero, Mike Adams, and others. The MSM has been exposed as fake news, and only gullibles believe in it.

oldhomey

The problem with your premise, Buggs, is that when you examine what mainstream media publishes, it almost always stands up to the light of scrutiny, and when it doesn't, mainstream media takes responsibility for the errors and corrects them. When you examine the "news" published by the alt right media clowns that you list, it falls apart immediately with actual scrutiny, but none of those clowns ever acknowledges their "errors" (lies) or corrects them. Show me how I am wrong on this. You can't and you won't.

Buggs Raplin

Oh c'mon-The MSM has lied to us on the Iraq War, 9/11, the assassinations of the 1960's and a lot of stuff in between. It promotes the evil of American foreign policy as our desire to spread democracy. Even you, I think, would find that hard to defend.

kingman10

no buggsy, the government lied to us about Iraq war and Vietnam. the media was just the governments outlet. But thanks to the media the lie was finally exposed. Your other wacko conspiracies like 9/11 and assassinations and pizzagate etc.... are just so far out there that they deserve no response. do you believe the Holocaust never happened? How about Sandy Hook shooting? Or are they just made up media stories.

Rick Czeczok

If you don't work for the tribune how is it that you can write this much in one post? HMHM

oldhomey

Here is how I write as much as I do in one post, Rick: I depress the keys on my p.c. keyboard, one at a time, until I am finished writing the post. Often I am too hurried and sloppy, resulting in typos that make me ashamed afterward, but generally the thought that I want expressed gets expressed, even with typos. I know for you, somebody who doesn't think very much, and certainly not deeply, it must be a problem writing a post that says something worth reading. And, in your case, I must say it shows. In fact, I wonder if you are you a ringer, somebody on the Tribune staff who inserts Rick Czeczok posts into these comment sections for a little comic relief? Could be, I suppose.

Buggs Raplin

oldhomey, tell us again about the presidential contest in 1978...

oldhomey

I did tell you about it, Buggs, and everybody else, too. I think it was kingman who corrected me on it, I jumped on and acknowledged the stupidity of my mistake, apologized to the person with whom I had used my mistaken information to counter his argument. I can track down my apology and republish it again, if you want. By the way, why do most of your comments to me only have a "Report" option under it, like this one?

kingman10

One of the main tenets of fascism is to belittle the press as a far out conspiracy organization out to get at or over throw some political party or agenda. Fascists don't want scrutiny or anyone who is well informed on their activities or agenda. They want control of the press and especially the information given to the public. Their propaganda wants you to believe its us against them (free press, free unions, minorities foreign powers etc). that is why Hitler had men called the "brown shirts" going around intimidating and bullying anyone they deemed dangerous to their way of thinking. Hitler relied on vast crazy conspiracies and to fool the public and the world. Eventually it all caught up to him. the truth always comes to the surface. How close are we to implementing the "brown shirts". #45 uses his mouth to intimidate and falsify the established news media. His use of the "fake news" mantra to describe the free press runs parallel to what happened in Germany 70 years ago. He would never want to see laws protecting the press from those tactics the brown shirts used no so long ago.

Buggs Raplin

The MSM is a sophisticated propaganda enterprise designed to disseminate necessary illusions to keep the sheep under control and obedient. The only time any 'journalism' comes into play is when it's something that doesn't interfere with the elite agenda. The MSM was quite simply an adjunct of the Clinton campaign, as Hillary was the elite choice. And what a surprise it was for them when Trump won. There were a lot of wet pants and soiled undies that night.

random annoying bozo

what are these 'journalists' you speak of? haven't they gone the route of the dodo bird? there is no such thing as 'journalists' anymore, but rather just partisans, spouting opinions, oft times with no substance to back that opinion, and calling it 'journalism'.

mocha1

The left is always looking for another victim. Now it’s journalists. We have plenty of laws that protect journalist just like joe blow on the street is protected from harm. We do not have to make them a special protected group. We do not have a free press in this country, where every view is expressed and welcomed. The press is not controlled by the government but an ideology that is just as restrictive to journalistic freedoms. America elected Trump as a rebellion against the leftist ideology being forced on us by the Obama administration and promised to continue under Clinton. Americans are expressing that displeasure with journalists who are so controlled by this same ideology that there is no longer a “free” press where journalists can be counted on to give objective information. Trump understands Americans resistant to force feeding of leftist anti American ideology, he energized that sentiment and was elected.

oldhomey

Mocha and bozo suffer under the delusion that when messengers deliver the truth, and the truth hurts, exposing the political leaders that mocha and bozo admire as liars and unethical and immoral, it is the messengers who are at fault, not the people they expose.

Buggs Raplin

So...when has the MSM ever delivered the truth on anything that really mattered. Examples please.

oldhomey

Pick up tomorrow's La Crosse Tribune, or the Minneapolis paper, or the Milwaukee paper, or, especially, the New York Times. I know you only like the "funnies", Buggs, but you cannot stand up and deny the truth day after day. It rolls over you.

kingman10

yea he sure did mocha, energized that sentiment against the free press. Trump made it fashionable, even desirable to be a red neck ignorant knuckle dragging ignoramus that doesn't care about reality of science and the world. they just make up their own alt. reality and feel good about it while hating all people who are different.

A Veteran

kingman==Oh please ,please keep this liberal Loon logic flowing.Conservatives will just run this stuff as ads in the fall and you guys will be crying yet.What a bunch of sh- LOL

kingman10

I know the truth hurts Veteran, but you should man up to it. Now go listen to Alex and Rush to get your fix.

A Veteran

kingman--I do not know who Alex is but I do know Rush is almost as big a blowhard as you are and neither one of you makes much sense!!

A Veteran

kingman--One more thing for you to think on,you liberals have lost over 1000 seats around the country since 2008 with your kind of thinking.So I will plead with you to keep it up,if you can make sound more condescending and elitist that would be great !!

oldhomey

Yes, A Veteran (of no known military branch), isn't it interesting that all these inroads made on state legislatures by radical rightwing tea party types have occurred since the infamous Supreme Court Citizens United decision telling us that political money is "free speech"? Since then billionaire right-wingers, especially the Koch brothers and Sheldon Adelson, but a host of others, too, have dumped hundreds upon hundreds of millions of dollars in political funding on right-wing candidates in state legislative and gubernatorial races, paying particular attention to getting their people into position during the primary elections. It is simply pay to play money, and there is no other way to describe it. It has worked, too, at least up until now. Do you think billionaires have a right to hire the legislative and political leaders who are supposed to serve all of us, not just their interests? Citizens United has to go. I have no idea what is going to happen in the future, but I am hoping against hope that the disasters that Trump being in the White House has created will ignite a groundswell of opposition that will result in moderates taking back the White House, Congress and state houses around the country, and when they do, they pass legislation that will junk the Citizens United decision pronto and permanently.

kingman10

oh don't worry veteran, I won't disappoint you. My grand audience demands i stay the course, pursue the truth and tell it like it is. We will see what happens in this elections year as people wake up to your type of ignorance and reject it.

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