City Paper is not for tourists
Hello, reader, I’m a journalist. And I’m better than you.
Don’t take it personally; hundreds of years of legislation, rule-making, and jurisprudence have made it so I can get access to certain government proceedings that remain unavailable to you. I get my fees waived when I make a records request under the Freedom of Information Act. And in many courts across the land, I’m even free to tell a prosecutor to shove it if he tries to get me to reveal my notes. You don’t get to do any of that.
But Scott Gant has some good news for you, and it’s the title of his first book: We’re All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age.
Unfortunately, the state of the law right now isn’t too friendly to the citizen journalist. As it is, the government for the most part only gives all those privileges to employees of traditional print, television, and radio media companies—meaning you, John Q. Blogger, probably aren’t going to be getting those FOIA fees waived any time soon.
Gant, a 38-year-old D.C.-based attorney, thinks you should, though, and his book is an attempt to show how the law got to be the way it is and how to change the law to make it friendlier to those doing journalism outside the aegis of a traditional media company.
The bad news is that changing the definition of what a journalist is isn’t going to happen with the flip of a switch. “There isn’t going to be one collective decision that’s going to resolve this in all places for all contexts,” Gant says. “This is a really decentralized process.”
For one thing, Gant says not to expect the Supreme Court to straighten these things out anytime soon; since 1972, the court has barely touched any issue relating to the press and its privileges. “I don’t think the courts are going to step in and solve the problem,” he says. “For all intents and purposes, the issue is going to have to be decided in statutes…and rule-making.”
What Gant suggests is that the definition of what makes a journalist matters less about who you get your paycheck from and more about what you intend to do with the information you might be gathering. “One thing I think you clearly have to show [is that you’re] collecting or processing information in order to disseminate it,” Gant says. What you don’t want, he says, is to put the government in a position of making subjective judgments about who is and who isn’t a journalist based on tone, viewpoint, or perhaps even number of readers.
Gant, as it happens, doesn’t concentrate on media law. At least not anymore: Shortly after starting practice in 1996, he spent several years working as counsel for the New Republic, where he helped defend the magazine against a well-publicized libel suit filed by conservative activist Paul Weyrich. These days, as a partner at Boies, Schiller & Flexner, Gant specializes in “complex civil litigation,” high-stakes lawsuits typically involving corporate clients.
But Gant says his true passions are the news—ever since he was a kid addicted to coverage of the Iran hostage crisis—and constitutional law, and he’d long had an interest in the intersection between the two. When questions of what makes a journalist popped up with the Armstrong Williams and Jeff Gannon affairs, he had the seeds of his book.
“I put these things together,” Gant says, “and thought I should take another look.”
Gant discusses and signs copies of his work at 6 p.m. Saturday, June 16, at Politics and Prose, 5015 Connecticut Ave. NW. Free. (202) 364-1919.