FEATURED: Edinburg City Attorney Omar Ochoa on Wednesday, March 10, 2021, in the City Council Chamber at Edinburg City Hall. On Friday, August 6, 2021, Ochoa shared details about federal legislation in Congress, titled the Local Journalism Sustainability Act and the Journalist Protection Act.
Photograph Courtesy CITY OF EDINBURG FACEBOOK
Congress considering pro-news media “Local Journalism Sustainability Act” and “Journalist Protection Act”, reports attorney Omar Ochoa
Proposed new laws to financially help local newspapers and to protect U.S. journalists from being attacked or intimidated for doing their jobs are making headlines out of Congress, reports attorney Omar Ochoa.
On Wednesday, June 16, 2021, Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick, D-AZ, and Congressman Dan Newhouse, R-WA, introduced the Local Journalism Sustainability Act for the 117th Congress, a bipartisan (supported by Democrats and Republicans) bill that seeks to provide a pathway to financial viability for local newspapers around the country through a series of three tax credits. Such publications were already facing financial hardships before the COVID-19 pandemic, which has only worsened over the last year.
Several weeks later, on Thursday, July 29, 2021, Congressman Eric Swalwell, D-CA, Sen. Richard Blumenthal D-CT, and Sen. Robert Menéndez, D-NJ, introduced the Journalist Protection Act, which would penalize individuals who intentionally harm journalists while they are doing their jobs. Attacks on journalists while gathering and reporting the news has become increasingly common and rose sharply in 2020. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 537 journalists were assaulted between January 1, 2020, and July 15, 2021.
“Excellent local newspapers, whether they are in print form, digital (online), or both, let readers know what is going on in their hometowns and home regions, good and bad, and they serve as the voice for all sides of an issue,” said Ochoa. “But according to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, ‘The coronavirus has closed more than 70 local newsrooms across America. And counting.’”
The Poynter Institute for Media Studies is a non-profit journalism school and research organization in St. Petersburg, Florida. The school is the owner of the Tampa Bay Times newspaper and the International Fact-Checking Network and operates PolitiFact.
Kirkpatrick and Newhouse, in announcing their legislation, provided the following details about the Local Journalism and Sustainability Act:
“Local Journalism is a bedrock pillar of communities across the United States,” said Kirkpatrick. “Unfortunately, journalistic endeavors throughout the country face major economic struggles that put the future of many publications in serious jeopardy. These struggles existed before COVID, but the pandemic only made them more severe. We need to make sure these publications can sustain themselves through this crisis and beyond, and I believe the credits in this bill make significant progress in providing a pathway to that sustainability.”
Legislation is proposed or enacted law or group of laws.
“For many rural communities like ours in Central Washington, local news is the only way to receive important information and updates. Unfortunately, many of our locally-owned newspapers have been struggling to make ends meet,” said Newhouse. “By providing tax credits for readers and small businesses and by empowering our local journalists, we can begin to help our small newspapers remain resilient and continue to provide in-depth perspectives that inform their readership regarding local current events.”
The Local Journalism Sustainability Act offers a series of three tax credits aimed at sustaining and providing a pathway to viability for the local journalism industry in the years to come.
The first credit works to incentivize annual subscriptions to local papers that primarily produce content related to local news and current events and can also be used for non-profit publications.
The second credit is a five-year credit for local newspapers to employ and adequately compensate journalists. The last of the three credits is a five-year tax credit that incentivizes small businesses to advertise with local newspapers, as well as local radio and television stations. You can learn more about the credits HERE.
The proposed credits in the Local Journalism Sustainability Act will encourage Americans to subscribe to local publications, help those publications retain and compensate journalists, and provide businesses and publications alike with much-needed advertising dollars.
“Local news is collapsing, threatening the health of communities and democracy. Reps. Kirkpatrick and Newhouse’s bottom-up approach is terrific — bringing serious help to local news organizations without allowing political favoritism or harm to the First Amendment,” said Steven Waldman, President of Report for America and leader of the Rebuild Local News coalition, which represents more than 4,000 locally owned and nonprofit newsrooms.
“The ongoing challenges at local newspapers were made worse by the pandemic. The result is even more pressure to maintain newsroom positions and the critical local newsgathering that is at the heart of our democracy. As local newspapers continue their progression to a sustainable digital future, the Local Journalism Sustainability Act will provide meaningful assistance as newspapers seek to provide information in new ways to meet the needs of their audience. This act will also help the local advertisers that are critical to local communities, and we are grateful to Reps. Kirkpatrick and Newhouse for their work in filing this important legislation,” said Dean Ridings, CEO of America’s Newspapers, one of the industry’s largest advocates for the newspaper industry.
Read the full bill text HERE.
News Media Alliance applauds introduction of Journalist Protection Act
The Journalist Protection Act makes an important statement that violence targeting the free press, an industry protected by the First Amendment, will not be tolerated, and will serve as the federal backstop if such crimes are not punished at the state or local level, according to supporters of the legislation.
The First Amendment guarantees freedoms concerning religion, expression, assembly, and the right to petition. … It guarantees freedom of expression by prohibiting Congress from restricting the press or the rights of individuals to speak freely.
Democracy depends on the ability of journalists to ask tough questions and report the truth without fear of violence or persecution,” said Congressman Swalwell. “My bill will ensure that journalists are able to do their jobs without fear of harm.”
Organizations supporting the bill include Communications Workers of America, News Media for Open Government, News Media Alliance, Radio Television Digital News Association, National Press Photographers Association, MPA – The Association of Magazine Media, National Newspaper Association, News Leaders Association, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, American Society of Media Photographers, National Association of Broadcasters, Reporters’ Committee for Freedom of the Press, North American Nature Photography Association, American Photographic Artists.
“The increasing threats and acts of violence against journalists are deeply alarming, and they need greater protection in order to do their jobs safely,” said Sen. Menéndez. “Our democracy and the American people rely on a free and independent press — a strong Fourth Estate — to keep the public informed and hold those in power accountable. Journalists perform a noble public service that the Framers understood was essential to a well-functioning democracy. We need to do more to ensure they can do their jobs effectively without fear of being hurt.”
The term Fourth Estate or fourth power refers to the press and news media both in the explicit capacity of advocacy and implicit ability to frame political issues. Though it is not formally recognized as a part of a political system, it wields significant indirect social influence.
News Media for Open Government is a broad coalition of news media and journalism organizations working to establish, maintain, and strengthen laws and policies that preserve and protect the freedom of the press, a transparent and open government, and the free flow of information in the U.S. democratic society.
That organization provided the following opinions from leaders in its alliance
Brigitte Schmidt Gwyn, President, and CEO of MPA – the Association of Magazine Media:
“MPA commends Senator Blumenthal, Senator Menéndez, and Congressman Swalwell for recognizing that journalists and publishers serve a vital role by keeping the public informed, and must be protected. The Journalist Protection Act will uphold the rights of the press, who sometimes face arrests, intimidation, and even outright violence. MPA stands with the sponsors of this important legislation in our commitment to defend First Amendment rights whenever they are threatened.”
Gordon Smith, President, and CEO, National Association of Broadcasters:
“As first informers of the events impacting our communities, it is essential that broadcast journalists be afforded the ability to report the news without harassment, intimidation, or assault. Alarmingly, there has been an increase in recent years in threats and violence against journalists that is counter to our nation’s commitment to a free press and threaten the very bedrock of our democracy. NAB thanks Senator Blumenthal, Senator Menéndez, and Congressman Swalwell for introducing the Journalist Protection Act that would help ensure journalists’ safety while reporting from the field.”
George Stanley, President, News Leaders Association:
“In the past year and a half, reporters throughout our nation have been attacked for simply doing their constitutionally protected jobs to preserve our democratic republic. This is unprecedented and cannot stand in the United States, a beacon of freedom. NLA appreciates the efforts of Senator Blumenthal, Senator Menéndez, and Representative Swalwell in sponsoring the Journalist Protection Act, and we hope a bipartisan coalition in Congress moves quickly to approve it.”
David Chavern, President and CEO, News Media Alliance:
“Reporters must be able to do their jobs safely and without fear of being attacked by those, they are working to serve. We applaud Congressman Swalwell and Senator Blumenthal and Senator Menéndez for introducing the Journalist Protection Act, and for their leadership and support of the essential role journalists play in preserving democracy. We look forward to journalists having a safer, more secure environment in which to continue the important work of reporting the news to their local communities.”
Dan Shelley, Executive Director and COO, Radio Television Digital News Association:
“Any time journalists are physically attacked while doing their jobs, they are not the only victims. Also hurt are members of the public whom those journalists serve while seeking and reporting the truth. We’re grateful – on behalf of journalists and the viewers, listeners, and readers they assist – to Senator Blumenthal, Senator Menéndez, and Congressman Swalwell for introducing this important piece of legislation and urge Congress to pass it, and President Biden to sign it, without delay.”
Bruce Brown, Executive Director, Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press:
“The Journalist Protection Act would bolster protections for reporters and give federal law enforcement the jurisdiction to bring those who target journalists to justice. Its introduction is very welcome after the hundreds of incidents over the last several years of journalists being attacked or harassed in the field.”
Matthew T. Hall, President, Society of Professional Journalists:
“Verbal and physical attacks on journalists cannot be accepted in civil society, and this legislation would go a long way to making sure we are able to do our jobs on behalf of the American public more safely. We urge Congress to pass it and the president to sign it as quickly as possible.”
SUPPLYING INFORMATION SWIFTLY – NOT DELAYING IT – IS THE GOVERNMENT’S DUTY
On Saturday, July 30, 2021, Kelly Shannon, Executive Director, Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, shared her views on the roles she believes should be exercised by local, state, and regional governments in Texas.
The Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas is a non-profit 301(c)(3) organization devoted to promoting open government and protection of the First Amendment rights of free speech and free press. We educate citizens and public officials about open government laws and public access. Attorneys who volunteer with FOIFT submit legal briefs in some cases of wide public interest.
Shannon’s comments follow:
If you work in government, here’s something to remember: You work for the people.
It’s your job to ensure citizens can interact with their government and have the information they need to hold it accountable. That includes handing over public records when someone requests them.
In Texas, government documents are presumed to be open to everyone and can only be withheld under specific confidentiality exemptions in the state’s Public Information Act. Many government employees understand this quite well. Some relish helping records requestors.
Unfortunately, though, Texas is experiencing a wave of blocked or delayed access to public information.
One of the more egregious cases is in the city of Odessa. For two years, officials have been holding up police information sought by The Odessa American, other news media, and citizens. Basic documents that once were available within hours, such as police reports and probable cause arrest affidavits, were held for days or weeks. In some instances, information that’s clearly public was blacked out when records were finally released.
This forced requestors to play a game of “Mother May I?” to obtain information, said Odessa American Publisher Patrick Canty when the newspaper sued the city in 2020 to press for the timely release of records.
He added, “The city is not our ‘mother,’ and they have no legal or ethical right to demand anyone ask their permission. That information belongs to all of us.”
The newspaper alleges Odessa officials slow-walked public records requests by having city attorneys vet each request related to crimes and arrests and by sending all requests to the attorney general’s office for a ruling. (If a governmental body wants to withhold information under the Texas Public Information Act, generally it must ask the Texas attorney general to decide whether it can do so.)
In May, an appeals court sided with a lower court in rejecting the city’s attempt to throw out the Odessa American’s case. Now another court hearing is set for Aug. 12.
Overuse and misuse of the attorney general’s ruling system aren’t only happening in Odessa. It’s increasing across Texas as governments stall and take advantage of the 45 business days it can take to receive an AG decision, rather than providing records “promptly,” as required by law. This scheme delays getting information to the public and overloads the attorney general’s office.
Attorney general public records decision requests increased from approximately 19,000 in 2011 to about 34,000 in 2020, with some of that growth obviously attributable to bad faith ruling requests. We need an appropriate penalty when governments abuse the system.
Another recent widespread delay strategy involves governments refusing to respond to information requests because their offices are physically closed amid the COVID-19 pandemic and operating on a “skeleton crew” remote work schedule.
That’s despite the fact that public employees are still on the job and many records today are accessible electronically by remote workers.
Meanwhile, certain cities – Dallas and Fort Worth among them – don’t even want to disclose their skeleton crew policies. They cited attorney-client privilege in their pleas to the attorney general when the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas asked to see their guidelines.
The FOI Foundation of Texas and other open government supporters urged legislators this year to prevent these arbitrary skeleton crew information shutdowns.
House Bill 1416, a bipartisan measure addressing the problem by defining “business days” in the Public Information Act, overwhelmingly passed the Texas House of Representatives. The Senate did not act.
Clearly, more work must be done to improve government transparency in Texas. The FOI Foundation will explore these timely topics at its annual state conference on Friday, September 24, 2021, in Austin.
Citizens need information so they can speak out and question elected leaders and policies. The public’s right to know is at the heart of our democracy. Those in government have a duty to ensure information flows freely.
For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).