Sunday, December 25, 2005

Journalists et al & What Justice Needs

Tibor R. Machan

Someone help me out—why do journalists, priests, psychiatrists and such folks (I can understand about attorneys) get a pass when they obstruct justice? Yes, that’s what they are doing when they refuse to tell who told them about some crime.

It is my impression, and correct me if I am wrong, that the laws of a free country require that no one be complicit in the commission of a crime, neither before nor after the fact. Aiding and abetting criminals is itself criminal, or so I thought. But over the years I have been witnessing this exemption which I just don’t understand. It is my impression, too, that the laws of a free country are supposed to apply equally to all citizens. So, if my friend tells me of a crime, and I am obligated to notify the authorities, I don’t see why if a person tells a priest of a crime the priest gets a pass. Or the psychiatrists. Or, especially, a journalists.

This special privilege accorded to journalists—or at any rate demanded by them and their pals—is a puzzle to me. Journalists are scribblers, no different from many other. I write columns, for example, and have done so for forty years. So by some accounts I am a journalists. If someone tells me “in confidence” that he or she either took part or is about to take part in a crime, why should I be free of the responsibility of notifying those who deal with crimes? Oh, because if I don’t get the privileged of remaining silent about this, in the future I will not receive such confidences.

So what? It seems to me that the one central public responsibility in a free country is to get criminals, to stop them, to protect—to “secure”—people rights from them. Why, if we all must take part in this effort—which is, I think, a sound policy since that’s the point in being part of the legal system of a free country, namely, to crush crime—should some of us get exceptions?

Now there is one thing I can see to support the exemptions, which is that there are stupid crimes that no one should be prosecuted for and no one should have to help detect. Yes, indeed, there are thousands of such stupid crimes, victimless crimes that are enacted simply to please certain people who want to run other people’s lives. I would personally give a pass to anyone who would refuse to take part in helping to catch such “criminals.”

But the issue is not this when it comes to folks like Judith Muller, formerly of The New York Times. The issue with her and hundreds of other journalists is simply to make their jobs easy. Well, my friendships with criminals would also be easier if I were free to shield them from the law with impunity. But I am not. I may indeed gain a whole lot of goodies from being exempt this way. But being a citizen of a free society I am not supposed to gain such a privilege, the privilege of not having to live by sound legal measures. But someone journalists and priests and psychiatrists and some others have managed to hoodwink enough politicians and legal experts that they do not need to live by these sound legal measures.

Or am I way off here? I don’t think so. But I am not perfect and could be wrong. I would need a novel good argument, though, because what I have run across over the years are totally unconvincing and seem to rest on this myth that journalists are something special. They are not—they, like engineers, teacher, TV directors, chefs or anyone else in a bona fide profession are to be treated equally under the law. To the extent they get away with special privileges, they are living unjust lives, at least in some significant part, and this should stop.

By the way, the reason I do not include attorneys in this is that they, in representing accused people, possess their special status because of the legal position they hold, not because of some feature of their ordinary work in the world. Journalists have no such special legal position, nor psychiatrists or priests.

Anyway, I ask for help. Perhaps I am missing something.

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