License to report: Michigan state senator wants journalists to register


By Walter Robinson, Distinguished Professor of Journalism, Northeastern University

Michigan State Sen. Bruce Patterson’s ham-handed legislative proposal to have reporters registered by the state poses no serious threat to the First Amendment: The bill has not a single co-sponsor. Patterson says he doesn’t expect it to become law. It was filed, he insisted, merely to provoke discussion.

So let’s discuss it. And since we know more about Michigan football than we do about Michigan government, let’s pretend Patterson filed the bill as a Massachusetts legislator.

Under the legislation, a state board would license journalists, who cover the government officials who appoint the board’s members and the legislators who would appropriate funds for the board’s operations. No problem there, right?

But in the registration process, a slight problem: Journalists seeking to be licensed would have to provide proof of “good moral character’’ as well as evidence they have ethical standards the board finds acceptable. No small hurdle there!

The hard-working political reporters I know meet those standards. At any serious news organization, good editors keep a watchful eye to make sure they do. But what are the chances that   the government officials who control the licensing board would have the same view?

From what I’ve read about Patterson’s bill, I don’t think he was ill-intentioned. Ill-informed, yes. Ill-advised, for sure. In explaining his proposal to reporters, Patterson expressed confusion about  the proliferation of media, and thought it wise to consider registering “serious’’ journalists.  That way, he reasons, the public would be able to judge the quality of the journalism they get.

Patterson, who is leaving office, said he had thought that journalists were required to have degrees in journalism. When he found out that was not so, according to a Fox News report, the senator mused that perhaps he could retire and become a journalist himself.

If Patterson made that career switch, then he’d be required by the board he envisions to pass another test that would strike fear in the heart of any reporter. To be licensed, we’d all have to give the board three writing samples to judge.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: