Advance ticket sales have ended but additional tickets remain available at the door.
Profs and Pints DC presents: “Rethinking the American Journalist,” on a radical proposal to use licensing requirements to buttress our nation’s unsteady Fourth Estate, with John C. Watson, associate professor of communication law and journalism ethics at American University and author of Journalism Ethics by Court Decree.
The tagline beneath the logo of The Washington Post says, “Democracy Dies in Darkness,” encapsulating journalists’ claim that our democracy is nourished by the light they shed. In many ways, however, traditional journalism itself has been dying. Newspapers are going by the wayside, and the news coverage they provide is being drowned out by a torrent of information, misinformation, and disinformation produced online by a new form of journalist, the content provider—basically anyone with an internet connection and a keyboard.
Wait a minute, you might be saying, it’s a stretch to call any content provider a “journalist” on the same footing as those with formal journalism training. As a legal matter, however, there’s no distinction between trained journalists, who are increasingly rare, and self-proclaimed journalists, who seem to be everywhere. According to John Watson, a lawyer and veteran journalist who teaches communication law at American University, that’s a problem we need to solve.
Join Professor Watson at DC’s Little Penn for a look at how the Fourth Estate came to be in this position, what our new media environment means for democracy, and what drastic steps might be necessary to restore trust in journalism as a distinct profession.
Mapping out the legal landscape, he’ll talk about how the First Amendment treats the words “press” and “speech” as synonymous and affords everybody had the same press and speech protections. As a result, under the U.S. Constitution any content provider is a journalist, as are the outward facing employees and users of Facebook, TikTok and Twitter, which are considered news organizations. People formally trained as journalists have no more rights than anyone else when it comes to publishing, and they have no special right to gather news. As a legal matter, everyone is on the same footing when it comes to asking the government for information.
As a practical matter, for much of our nation’s history the freedom of the press guaranteed under the First Amendment was exercised mainly by those who owned or worked for newspapers. In recent decades, however, digital media has drained away much of the advertising revenue that had been the lifeblood of American news organizations—bringing widespread newspaper layoffs and closures—and has provided an inexpensive and easy way for anyone to spread information far and wide. Business conglomerates, particularly hedge funds, have spent at least two decades buying financially fragile news media operations where they jettisoned staff and scaled back publication in undisguised efforts to recreate the operations as profitable “content providers.”
Professor Watson’s provocative answer to such trends is the creation of a licensure system, independent of the governor, that would distinguish trained journalists from other content providers and afford them a special legal status and protections similar to those afforded attorneys. If nothing else, his talk will give you plenty to think about and help you be a more critical consumer of the information on your screen. (Advance tickets: $13.50 plus sales tax and processing fees. Doors: $17, or $15 with a student ID. Listed time is for doors. Talk starts 30 minutes later.)
Photo by Roger H. Goun / Creative Commons