Dear government: Stop trying to have it both ways on bloggers

What is it, exactly, that some officials in Washington, D.C., have against bloggers? I don't know, but it's requiring them to adopt uncomfortable intellectual poses to justify their prejudice.

Last month, the Federal Trade commission adopted new guidelines governing endorsements and sponsorships. Under the new rules, a blogger who receives freebies -- samples of cosmetic products or consumer electronics, review copies of books or video games, etc. -- from companies that he or she writes about is, in effect, being paid to write about those companies. Failure to disclose those payments constitutes a form of advertising fraud and carries potentially heavy penalties.
Meanwhile, in Congress, a debate has been percolating over a proposed shield law that would protect journalists who seek to safeguard the anonymity of their sources. Sen. Chuck Schumer and others have been trying to make sure that only "professional" journalists -- ie. those who earn their incomes from reporting and writing -- enjoy a legislative shield. Amateur bloggers would get no protection.

In other words, bloggers who don't get paid aren't really journalists, in the eyes of Schumer & Co., merely hobbyists. But many bloggers who do get paid, as defined by the FTC, aren't really journalists either, because of how and by whom they get paid. Instead, they're paid endorsers.

It's often been noted by proponents of "citizen journalism" that journalism, unlike medicine or law, is explicitly not something you need a license to practice. But with the FTC guidelines and the deliberations over the shield law, the government seems to be edging closer to certifying who is and isn't a journalist -- and doing it in the most incoherent way.

As of right now, it looks like the shield bill moving through Congress will cover amateur bloggers, despite the initial objections of Schumer and his allies. That's good. Even better would be if the FTC amended its silly guidelines to stop discriminating against the increasing number of writers who don't draw their pay from media companies.

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