Hats off to “Newsweek” for publishing a full-page op-ed by Vanessa Leggett, the college English teacher and freelance writer who is languishing in jail after she refused to turn her notes over to the FBI, which is investigating a murder case she is writing about. The FBI rejected her claims of being a journalist because she hasn’t published yet. She insists that she is “sacrificing personal liberty” to maintain her “journalistic freedom.” But some critics argue that even reporters cannot be “above the law.” (The Washington Post reports that an Associated Press reporter just had his home phone records subpoenaed in another FBI probe, provoking outrage from the wire service.)
Perhaps the FBI shouldn’t be deciding who is or isn’t a journalist but it is a question worth asking.
In some countries, journalists have to be licensed or work for government-controlled media outlets. In others, only established media companies can get government-issued press cards. Many people consider these accredited reporters, editors and executives to be the only legitimate journos. This raises a number of vexing points, especially for those independents and freelancers who lack “acceptable” credentials.
Paul McMasters, ombudsman of the Freedom Forum, poses some of these questions:
• “What is the definition of a journalist and who gets to fashion and enforce that definition?”
• “To what extent can journalists thus defined be compelled to serve as an arm of the law?”
• “When does aggressive prosecution of criminal suspects turn into harassment or vendettas against journalists?”
He then adds this disturbing information: “Vanessa Leggett’s lawyer, Mike DeGeurin of Houston, said in an interview with Christine Tatum, who chairs the SPJ [Society for the Protection of Journalists] Legal Defense Fund: ‘Here’s the real kicker. They offered to make her a secret agent for the government. They wanted her to continue her research and work for the government by feeding information to the FBI. She felt that compromised her integrity and independence as a journalist, and she refused. It was shortly after she turned down that offer that she got this subpoena.
“The question that’s now in my mind is this: How many reporters and journalists are actually agents of the government? I wonder how many other journalists didn’t tell them no.'”
Years ago, after a wave of disclosures and scandals, the FBI and CIA agreed not to hire journalists or use them covertly to collect information. That policy may be changing under the Bush administration. This needs to be investigated.
But so does the shunning of independent journalists whose work may be just as strong as anyone on a media company payroll. We saw what happened during the G-8 protests in Genoa when the police rampaged at the Independent Media Center trashing the place and assaulting activists covering the protests. Fortunately, there were massive protests against this abuse. There have been official investigations in Italy, dismissals and now prosecutions. But incidents like this are likely to recur because the line between protest and protest-oriented media is often a thin one.
As MediaChannel editor Aliza Dichter: wrote recently: “These days, thanks to affordable video equipment and the Internet, activists don’t have to rely on big media to get the story— they are seizing the means of news-making for themselves. These same technological advances are empowering a greater range of independent media outlets than ever before, seeking to provide an alternative to the mainstream. Could this be blurring the line between journalism and activism? Police in the UK have arrested journalists at protests on the suspicion that they were really activists. When journalists ride the bus of a political candidate and laugh at his jokes, they’re considered to be doing their job. When a journalist rides on a bus full of activists on their way to a civil disobedience, is she more suspect?”
This ultimately is a “which side are you on” question. Most mainstream journalists don’t acknowledge how their own ideologies (or the pressures of their employers) guide their work. Yet they are considered “real journalists” because of their insider status and where they stand in the pecking order of some media combine. However, note that in a world of so many diverse publications, multimedia outlets and Web sites, more and more people are defining themselves as journalists and in some instances even reinventing aspects of journalism, as with the Indy Media Centers. Outsiders have always fought to be recognized and validated. The late I. F. Stone, for one, virtually alone, went after the U.S. government’s Vietnam polices with a small newsletter. History now considers him a media hero. A new Indian website is battling corruption by exposing it. “Private Eye,” a satirical magazine in London, has long been an outlet for unsourced, anonymous insider dish ‘n’ dirt on the media business. It’s not traditional “balanced” reporting but most journalists read it and love it. There are many more such examples.
The real problem is how to practice your craft without institutional support. This is especially true if you are an investigative reporter. And when you are exposing powerful institutions, they may try to come down on you. That’s why it is crucial to persuade others in the media world about the necessity of solidarity with those who don’t have the same resources or status.
It is important to note that Vanessa Leggett, a journalist by self-definition, has won the backing of major industry organizations. Reports McMasters: “The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Society of Newspapers and the Radio-Television News Directors Association filed a court brief on her behalf. More than two dozen news organizations, including the three networks, joined the legal effort. SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund contributed $12,500 to her defense.”
Now the challenge for independent media is to also raise our voices on her behalf. If you consider yourself a journalist, act like one and speak out for colleagues in trouble. What goes around comes around. Let’s join the campaign to free her— and others like her— all over the world who don’t have the same visibility or access to “Newsweek.” Ditto for those establishment media voices who are silent when more insurgent or “fringe” media voices get picked on. Needless to say, if the government prosecution works in her case, it will be tried in others. We need to stand up together.
— Danny Schechter is the executive editor of MediaChannel.org. His latest book is “News Dissector: Passions, Pieces and Polemics, 1960-2000,” from Akashic Books.