In his New York Post column today, Glenn Reynolds responds to Senator Dick Durbin’s column in the Chicago Sun-Times last week: “Everyone, regardless of the mode of expression, has a constitutionally protected right to free speech. But when it comes to freedom of the press, I believe we must define a journalist and the constitutional and statutory protections those journalists should receive.”
Durbin opines: “A journalist gathers information for a media outlet that disseminates the information through a broadly defined ‘medium’ — including newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, magazine, news Web site, television, radio or motion picture — for public use. This broad definition covers every form of legitimate journalism.”
Wearing his scholarly hat, Glenn comments: “Durbin is a constitutional ignoramus if he thinks that when the Framers talked about freedom of the press, they were talking about freedom for the press as an institution.”
It’s early, but I’m exercising my discretion to declare Glenn’s comment on Durbin the quote of the day.
Glenn alludes to some of the deeply relevant history that informs the First Amendment’s protection of a free press. He brings this history to bear on the democratization of the dissemination of news and commentary on the Internet. In its democratization of news and commentary, the Internet is a throwback to the revolutionary era of American history when Americans were thinking through the principles of free government.
This “back to the future” element of the Internet can be seen most vividly through Bernard Bailyn’s classic study of the pamphlets of the revolutionary era in The Ideological Origins of the American Revolution. Bailyn observes that the political discussion and argument leading to the Revolution appeared in all printed forms. However, he writes:
Above all, there were pamphlets: booklets consisting of a few printer’s sheets, folded In various ways so as to make various sizes and numbers of pages, and sold — the pages stitched together loosely, unbound and uncovered — usually for a shilling or two…
It was in this form — as pamphlets — that much of the most important and characteristic writing of the American Revolution appeared. For the Revolutionary generation, as for its predecessors back to the early sixteenth century, the pamphlet had peculiar virtues as a medium of communication. Then, as now, it was seen that the pamphlet allowed one to do things that were not possible in any other form.
Bailyn notes that the the pamphlets themselves were in large part “direct responses to the great events of the time…” and that they “[t]hey resulted, also, and to a considerable extent, from what might be called chain-reacting personal polemics: strings of individual exchanges — arguments, replies, rebuttals, and counter-rebuttals — in which may be found heated personifications of the larger conflicts.”
Virtually none of the pamphleteers was a “journalist” in Durbin’s sense. Bailyn describes the pamphleteers as “amateurs next to such polemicists as Swift and Defoe. Nowhere [were there writers who were]… capable, that is, of earning their living by their pens. The American pamphleteers were almost to a man lawyers, ministers, merchants, or planters heavily engaged in their regular occupations.”
Senator Durbin badly needs to be embarrassed sufficiently to get clued in. Glenn Reynolds’s column serves the role of a two-by-four across the forehead seeking his attention.
PAUL adds: I’m guessing that writing for “Pajama Line” does not meet Durbin’s definition of a journalist.