Jonah Goldberg

As someone who makes a lavish living in the First Amendment industry ("Jeeves! More imitation Cheez-Wiz on this cracker!"), I might be expected to subscribe to the fashionable, enlightened, extend-your-pinky-to-drink-tea position on free speech issues. What position is that? That members of the Fourth Estate constitute a priestly class with special powers and privileges not held by the Great Unwashed.

The thinking goes that, in order to do their jobs well, journalists need special exemption from testifying before courts and grand juries - an obligation that holds for everybody else. The truth is, I don't think such an arrangement would be good for journalism, because it would turn the profession into a guild. I don't have much use for guilds.

Few professions love special badges and flip-open credential cases more than the reporting business. I think it goes back to Superman. While most of us wanted the super strength, X-ray vision and ability to fly, aspiring journalists actually yearned to wear their press passes in their hats like Clark Kent used to.

Currently, the ink-stained wretches are slavering over moves in Congress to pass federal journalist shield laws. This idea got an extra shove from prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald's investigation of the alleged White House leaking of Valerie Plame's identity as a CIA operative. Some journalists didn't want to reveal their sources, claiming the Constitution gives them an absolute, adamantine and eternal right to protect their sources even if their sources committed a crime and the reporter in question made the commission of that crime possible.

Many putative First Amendment voluptuaries defend their position against the most absurd hypotheticals. My favorite example (as some readers may recall) comes from the columnist Michael Kinsley. A "very distinguished New York Times writer" once told Kinsley that "if the Times ballet critic, heading home after assessing the day's offering of plies and glissades, happens to witness a murder on her way to the Times Square subway, she has a First Amendment right and obligation to refuse to testify about what she saw." Why? Because she's a member of the priestly caste.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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