Survivalist starts issuing his own press passes
Self-described survivalist James Wesley Rawles is certain that America’s comfortable, orderly, shrink-wrapped-for-our-protection existence borders on failure, and that we are one freedom-squelching disaster away from doom.
However, Rawles, who includes “former U.S. Army intelligence officer” on his resume, suggests perhaps the best defense against this overreach isn’t a gun or a bomb shelter, but a press pass.
And Rawles is happy to issue them himself — to everyone. Free.
To do this, he has launched the Constitution First Amendment Press Association, or CFAPA, a website advocating media freedom for anyone who wants it.
“I have a degree in journalism. Got it in 1984 from San Jose State University. At that time, our professors stressed that journalism was a profession,” Rawles said in a phone interview with Net Worked. “For many years, I took that at face value. But given the changing nature of technology, advances are putting the traditional tools of the press in the hands of citizens.”
Rawles spoke from his ranch somewhere inside the vast expanse he has designated the American Redoubt — the lightly populated, mostly mountainous region consisting of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and the western portions of Oregon and Washington — the best place he says to hide from doom. His phone number instead has a California area code, but “that’s on purpose. I don’t want to wake up one morning and find hundreds of people camping on my property thinking that’s the safest place to be.”
Since 2005, Rawles has published SurvivalBlog, a portal he created to share survivalist tips and advice, and occasionally rail against law enforcement obstructing or harassing the media. SurvivalBlog claims more than 300,000 unique visits monthly.
“I’ve had my blog nearly 10 years now, and off and on I’ve mentioned numerous incidents and made comments that someone ought to issue press credentials to anyone who wants them” to prevent other incidents from occurring, he said. “Well, finally it reached the point where I said, ‘If I wait for someone else to do it, it’s never going to happen.’”
America’s first line of civil defense is access to information, Rawles believes, and the rise of citizen journalism has broadened the public’s awareness and appreciation for that defense.
Rawles realizes he has competition. But he insists that his own blanket issuance of press credentials, coupled with his wide online audience, has more potential to “put the citizenry on equal footing with those traditionally recognized as professional journalists.”
Or so he hopes.
“Now, I recognize that even professional journalists have gotten themselves, arrested, detained, had their cameras blocked or taken away from them — yes, that does take place, but a lot less often than to the average citizen who just whips out his cell phone and starts filming an arrest,” Rawles said.
He believes the sight of several CFAPA press credentials at a news event may temper police behavior.
“I think that a lot of modern American law enforcement officers have developed a bit of an ego, maybe even a complex, where they like to be in control of a situation and have forgotten the fact that they’re public servants, and they try to lord over everyone,” Rawles said. “Here we are in the early days of the 21st century where we have police officers who need to be educated as to their responsibilities under the First Amendment to protect people’s right to record public events.”
Whether tossing around press credentials like confetti also mitigates arrogance is debatable, and Rawles’ approach may only fuel that debate. The CFAPA’s official stance, ironically, is to disavow responsibility for its own credentials so as to maintain a safe distance from anyone who misuses them — say, to gain free access to a concert or special event, or interfere with police doing their job.
“That’s for my protection. I don’t want to be sued for libel or anything like that,” he said. “I do not have deep pockets; I’m not the (Associated Press).”
Rawles refuses to say how many credentials have been issued, citing privacy concerns, but claims the number is “in the hundreds.”
Another thing: Rawles insists the CFAPA keeps no records on who gets these credentials, the better to ensure the privacy of the press pass holders. And yet, if he hears of misuse, he will endeavor to have the credentials withdrawn.
Rawles does not explain how, without comprehensive distribution records, the association would go about doing that.
“I make it very clear that everyone who is credentialed by the organization is still an independent journalist and responsible for their own actions,” he said.
Printing out a set of plain, black-and-white CFAPA credentials at home is easy. Applicants first need only agree to a 20-point code of ethics, or “Constitutional Journalist’s Pledge,” and sign off on a list of usage restrictions that, among other things, prohibit pass holders to be under 18, to be “insane,” or to be “mentally incompetent,” though Rawles acknowledges he has no way to measure or guard against these things.
“I don’t think it’s realistic for me to say that I’m going to have everyone pass some examination or that I’m going to have them meet some peculiar standard for renewal of their press pass,” he said.
So, in the end, what good are press credentials that are easier to obtain than YouTube clips of Solange Knowles’ latest smackdown, yet may be only moderately more effective than not having them at all?
“This is more of a societal movement than it is a guild,” Rawles explained. “I don’t want to intrude upon the traditional press associations like the AP. … My intention is to set up something in parallel for the average man on the street, to afford them some of the same privileges that have been afforded in the past to credentialed reporters from the big organizations.”
David Sheets is a freelance writer and editor, Region 7 director, and past-president of SPJ’s St. Louis Pro chapter. Reach him by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter at @DKSheets, on Facebook and LinkedIn.
Defending the First Amendment and promoting open government are more crucial now than ever. Join SPJ's fight for the publics right to know either as an SPJ Supporter or a professional, student or retired journalist.