Registering for trouble

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This guy has a great idea.


Michael Pitts is a Republican state representative in South Carolina. Yesterday, he introduced a bill called the South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law.

Pitts wants the state to license journalists – and if they fail his standards and flout his law, they can spend up to 30 days in jail.

In the past 24 hours, Pitts has been mocked by the left (Mother Jones) and doubted by the right (The Daily Caller). After all, it’s odd for a small-government Republican to expand government into the newsroom.

But I see promise in Pitts’ proposal. Sure, there are problems, but there’s also opportunity…

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PROVISION: Before working as a journalist for a media outlet in this State, a person shall provide a criminal record background check to the media outlet to determine journalistic competence.

PROBLEM: Because Rush Limbaugh was booked on drug charges in 2006 and cut a deal with prosecutors, his popular radio show would be banned in South Carolina. Like him or hate him, Limbaugh shouldn’t be censored. Pitts’ conservative constituency would surely agree.

And yes, Limbaugh is a journalist under Pitts’ broad definition: “‘Journalist’ means a person who in his professional capacity collects, writes, or distributes news or other current information for a media outlet, including an employee or an independent contractor.”

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PROVISION: A person is not competent to be a journalist if…the person has demonstrated a reckless disregard of the basic codes and canons of professional journalism associations, including a disregard of truth, accuracy, objectivity, impartiality, fairness, and public accountability.

PROBLEM: Who decides? Pitts’ bill doesn’t say, and it can’t be him – because he’s already been caught in a “disregard of truth” and a lack of “public accountability.”

In September, The Pulitzer Prize-winning Post and Courier reported that Pitts spent “nearly $6,000 jetting to Alaska, Oregon, South Dakota and Montana to hobnob with ‘sportsmen legislators.’

“Pitts said the summits were ‘mostly business’ concerning hunting and fishing laws and initiatives. But photos from these events show Pitts and others proudly posing with freshly killed pheasants and other game.”

While that’s not illegal, it’s surely unethical. And weirdly, Pitts serves on the House Ethics Committee. It must be easier to legislate ethics for others than to practice them yourself.

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PROVISION: A person who works as a journalist without registering…for a first offense, must be fined not more than twenty-five dollars; for a second offense, is guilty of a misdemeanor and must be fined not more than one hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than fifteen days, or both; and for a third or subsequent offense, is guilty of a misdemeanor and must be fined not more than five hundred dollars or imprisoned not more than thirty days, or both.

OPPORTUNITY: SPJ can boost its membership.

As the SPJ board member representing the southeast United States, I’ll offer South Carolinians this perk: If you can’t get licensed because you’ve behaved no better than the sponsor of this bill, I’ll match you with an SPJ member who lives outside your state.

You’ll write under that SPJer’s byline, and I’ll keep records attesting that the stories are really yours. When you apply for other jobs – hopefully in other states – you can show off your best work, and I’ll back you up.

Even if you earn the Registry Office’s blessing, you might not want to pay the “application fee,” which has yet to be announced but will be “an amount determined by the office.” You, too, can use the SPJ Byline Exchange Service and save.

But to use this free service, you must join SPJ. Since SPJ membership costs only $75, that’s cheaper than a second violation and might cost less than the application fee.

Finally, I’ll offer to pay the $25 first-offense fine for any unlicensed South Carolina journalists who report on their failed attempt to get licensed and thus get fined. I love it when stories eat their own tails.

Alas, the South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law has zero chance of passing – even Pitts admitted as much to (unlicensed) reporters. Too bad. I was hoping he’d register public information officers next.

 


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