MARTY RUSSELL: Licenses? We don’t need no stinkin’ licenses

By Marty Russell

A Michigan lawmaker has introduced a bill that would require journalists to be licensed by the state just like contractors, hair stylists and dogs and cats. Sen. Bruce Patterson has introduced the measure because, he said, people are being overwhelmed by the number of media outlets these days and don’t know who to trust.
“Legitimate media sources are critically important in our government,” Patterson said. “We have to be able to rely on the source and to understand the credentials of the source.”
I would have to agree with him wholeheartedly if not for the fact that he made that statement on Fox News.
The idea of licensing those of us in the Fourth Estate has been around for years but has never gone anywhere largely because of common sense and also because of a little thing called the First Amendment. Any and all attempts have been shot down as patently unconstitutional. It would be like having the fox, no pun intended, guarding the hen house.
Imagine having to obtain a license to practice your profession from the very people who are often, as a result of doing your job, targets of your profession. If they don’t like something you’ve written about them, they could very well yank your license to do business. Venezuela, anyone?
Patterson, the lone sponsor of the bill, wants to go even further and require licensed journalists to meet certain criteria including possession of a journalism degree, three years of experience as a journalist, to provide at least three writing samples to the licensing board and demonstrate “good moral character.”
Some of the best journalists in history never had a journalism degree. In fact, the first school of journalism in this country wasn’t established until 1908, barely 100 years ago. How does one get three years of journalism experience if you can’t practice without a license? Who is qualified to evaluate those three writing samples? And, as for good moral character, how does one determine that and why can’t we apply the same rules to politicians? After all, the stereotypic journalist is usually portrayed as a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, profanity-laced curmudgeon.
Patterson’s bill isn’t expected to go far. According to the director of the Michigan Press Association, “It’s a single sponsor bill.” I think that says it all. But Patterson does have a point. We are all so inundated with media outlets these days that it is hard to know who to trust anymore. That is a legitimate complaint but I don’t think licensing journalists is the answer. Who would you believe more, a free press or one hand-picked by the politicians who control the licensing?
Perhaps one day we’ll have an independent, non-partisan ratings system for news outlets that alerts viewers, listeners and readers to inaccurate, misleading and biased reporting. Until then, you’ll just have to trust us. Because, as I tell my students, what we’re really selling in this business is credibility.

Marty Russell writes a Wednesday column for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at 222 Farley Hall, University, MS 38677 or by e-mail at marusse1@olemiss.edu