House Republicans want to create a state Journalism Ethics Board to develop “canons of ethics” for journalists in Georgia. The measure was sponsored by Rep. Andy Welch of McDonough. Five other Republicans signed on to sponsor the bill. He said he thinks the profession could benefit by setting ethical standards for all journalists to follow. House Bill 734 would create an “independent” board, with the chancellor of the University System of Georgia forming a body to appoint members. The bill would allow

Torpy at Large: A state Journalism Ethics Board? Stop the presses

An effort by Georgia legislators to create a board that would determine who’s a proper journalist — and therefore who isn’t — is causing consternation, anger and a good dose of ridicule worldwide. Well, at least among those who like the news media.

That group, I may add, is a shrinking number.

This month, as the state Legislature was ending its, um, governing, state Rep. Andy Welch, a relatively low-key five-term Republican legislator from McDonough, saved his best (or loudest) piece of legislation for last, to create a state Journalism Ethics Board.

Then he announced he was leaving the Legislature. It was akin to a rapper dropping the mic and walking offstage, although Welch disagrees with that notion. (I add that to be fair — and to keep Welch’s journalism board from coming for me.)

Statehouse denizen James Salzer of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution broke the story. The board, Salzer wrote, “would create ‘canons of ethics,’ issue advisory opinions, develop voluntary accreditation, set up a system for investigating complaints and sanctioning accredited violators of such canons. If approved, the bill would also mandate that anyone interviewed by the media would be able to request and receive copies of photographs and audio and video recordings taken by reporters and photographers.”

Republican state Rep. Andy Welch gives a thumbs-up right before the session is adjourned at the state Capitol in Atlanta on April 2, 2019, the final day of the 2019 Georgia General Assembly. 
Photo: Emily Haney / emily.haney@ajc.com

Since the story ran, Welch has fielded perhaps dozens of media calls and seems bemused by the reaction. “My little bill made it to The Guardian in England.” And The Washington Post, and CBS and NBC, and Reason magazine, and The Hill and …

Even the Thomasville Times-Enterprise jumped in, editorializing that “Welch’s attack on the press is an assault upon freedom and the people of Georgia.”

Richard T. Griffiths, president of the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, was quoted as saying, “Frankly, this is the kind of proposal one would expect to surface in a banana republic, not the Peach State.”

Griffiths, a retired journalist from Jolly Ol’ England who worked at CNN, has been in Georgia long enough to know our politicians can out-banana-republic just about anyone else’s pols.

Atlanta City Attorney Nina Hickson (left) is honored on Oct. 18, 2018, by Georgia First Amendment Foundation President Richard Griffiths for her efforts to stand up for open government. Reporting by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News revealed that Hickson, as the attorney for the Atlanta Beltline, successfully pushed back against efforts by a top aide to former Mayor Kasim Reed to hinder access to public documents.
Photo: J. Scott Trubey / strubey@ajc.com

“Georgia legislators have a history of wasting time pushing against the tides of history,” said my old boss, Hank Klibanoff, retired managing editor of the AJC and now an Emory prof.

The bill, which has five other Republican co-sponsors and could gain traction next year, would have the chancellor of the University System of Georgia appoint a nine member board to appoint another nine member ethics board, which would include three editors, three news producers, a journalism professor (Hank?) and two people who write or broadcast primarily for websites.

Right off, this has me peeved. Nowhere does this bill list reporters — those of us actually on the streets going nose to nose with the news and sources. It does list two “online only” people, but that just makes us ink-stained wretches feel even more left behind. (I’m a “columnist,” which means I’m a reporter who sprinkles some jokes into each story.)

The board would issue advisories on canons of ethics, create some vague “accreditation process” and then have some sort of tribunal to sanction those for “violations.” Possibly, you could have your “accreditation” yanked, whatever that means.

Those of us in the biz pretty much know the rules: Don’t make stuff up; don’t misquote people; spell their names right (sorry Beth Beskin); put in both sides of a debate. Newspapers are generally good at making corrections and policing its employees’ ethics.

Some will argue a majority of those in the news media lean left. I won’t argue that. But they strive to do a good, square job. I could counter that a majority of cops lean right, but that doesn’t mean most don’t try to do their job honestly.

I called Rep. Welch, who said he really has no beef with the press. That seems to ring true. He hasn’t, to my memory, been controversial or gotten beat up by the media. He did sponsor a wrong-headed bill (that’s just my opinion, future Ethics Board) that would have allowed a big chunk of Stockbridge to secede and create its own city named after a golf course — Eagle’s Landing. Voters wisely shot it down.

Kim Ash teaches the “Fighting Fake News” class at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. While teachers once feared that teenagers would fall for everything they read online, they are now concerned that young people won’t believe anything they read.
Photo: Bill O’Leary / Washington Post

Welch said he filed the bill to start a fair and accurate discourse through which “the public could be educated about what it means to be a member of the press.”

He asked what the standards are for this “awesome responsibility.”

I asked what “accreditation” means.

“I don’t know,” he said. “The bill is drafted so journalists like yourself can tell us what it is.”

Welch said there was no specific action or outrage by the press that kicked this off. He has talked to reporters about this previously, he said. “I was bemoaning the fact (that) the blurring of the line between opinion and fact has a lot to do with that hostility.”

A Gallup poll last fall said just 45% of Americans have a “great deal or fair amount of trust in the mass media,” which is up from 32% in 2016 but down from the 50% twenty years ago. Also, 76% of Democrats and just 21% of Republicans trust the “mass media,” so it’s all in the eyes of the beholders and no surprise that it was Republicans pushing this bill.

The term “media” can have a wide berth. Is it The New York Times? Fox News? Or JoeInHisMomsBasement.com?

“The bill is only meant to jump-start a conversation on these issues,” Welch said. “I don’t think government should answer that.”

Actually, he’s kind of asking government to do the jump-starting on a scheme that has no chance of passing, or if it does, surviving more than 15 minutes in court.

Still, despite Welch’s clumsy way of bringing it all up, his bill has spurred a fair discussion about my trade — although I’d like to point out that in his day job, Rep. Welch is a lawyer. And according to polls, lawyers make journalists look good.

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