An Upstate lawmaker who tried to keep the Confederate battle flag flying and whose campaign spending habits were part of a Post and Courier examination of Statehouse money trails says it’s time to register journalists in the state.
State Rep. Mike Pitts, R-Laurens, on Tuesday introduced a bill called the “South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law.”
The bill would create requirements for people wanting to work as a journalist for a media outlet, and also before that outlet could hire anyone for a reporting position.
The measure is at least the second bill filed in the Statehouse this year with virtually no chance of advancing but is meant to reflect a lawmaker’s personal political statement.
State Rep. Mia McLeod, D-Columbia, earlier offered a proposal to make it more difficult for men to get medication to treat erectile dysfunction or get access to such drugs as Viagra and Cialis. She acknowledged the idea is likely to go nowhere but wanted to send a message to the male-dominated and Republican-controlled General Assembly about laws governing women, including restricting their access to abortion.
Pitts told The Post and Courier his bill is not a reaction to any news story featuring him and that he is “not a press hater.” Rather, it’s to stimulate discussion over how he sees Second Amendment rights being treated by the printed press and television news. He added that the bill is modeled directly after the “concealed weapons permitting law.”
“It strikes me as ironic that the first question is constitutionality from a press that has no problem demonizing firearms,” Pitts said. “With this statement I’m talking primarily about printed press and TV. The TV stations, the six o’clock news and the printed press has no qualms demonizing gun owners and gun ownership.”
Under the bill, the Secretary of State’s Office would be tasked with keeping a “responsible journalism registry” and creating the criteria with the help of a panel on what qualifies a person as a journalist — similar to doctors and lawyers, Pitts said.
Pitts said the criminal penalties mentioned in his bill for violations would be “minor fines” similar to those concealed weapons permit holders face.
A journalist—defined as a person who in his professional capacity collects, writes, or distributes news or other current information for a media outlet, including an employee or an independent contractor—that is not registered would be fined $25 to $500, would be cited with a misdemeanor and could be imprisoned up to 30 days, based on the level of offense.
The lawmaker questioned whether working journalists actually follow the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which outlines principles for professional journalists to follow to ensure fair and accurate reporting.
“Do journalists, by definition, really adhere to a code of ethics?” Pitts said. “The problem that I have with the printed press is, like I said, it appears especially in the last decade to me each story has become more editorial than reporting. It might just be my perception.”
Charles Bierbauer, a University of South Carolina journalism professor, veteran newsman and dean of the College of Information and Communications, was one of several media representatives in the state who said Pitts’ proposal had no chance of ever becoming reality.
“It says here in the building where I work that ‘Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,’ ” Bierbauer said, referring to wording posted in the USC journalism school.
Of Pitts’ proposal he added, “These are nuisance bills that allow an elected official to say, ‘I proposed to bring down those muckrakers.’ ”
The bill was sent to the Committee on Labor, Commerce and Industry. Pitts is hopeful for a hearing, at the least, and he said he received strong support from several other representatives.
“Let’s be realistic; this is an election year,” Pitts said. “It is well into the second year and the Senate is not going to do anything this year and certainly not going to do anything controversial. So no, I don’t anticipate it going anywhere. Would I mind getting a hearing on it to further the debate and discussion? I would love to have that.”
Pitts, who is on the House Ethics Committee, was featured in the Post and Courier report “Capitol Gains” last year for his trips out west to Alaska, Oregon, South Dakota and Montana to hobnob at summits with “sportsmen legislators.” On one occasion, he received a $1,104 trip to attend the annual National Assembly of Sportsmen’s Caucuses Summit in Sunriver, Ore., where he also went hunting. He used campaign money to gas up his rental car on the trip. There was nothing illegal in the spending.
Pitts also was the leading advocate for keeping the Confederate flag flying outside the Statehouse during last summer’s flag debate in the wake of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston.
Bill Rogers, director of the S.C. Press Association, which represents 15 daily and 89 weekly newspapers in the state, called the bill “outrageous and unconstitutional.”
“The Constitution doesn’t say anything about responsible journalism, it says free journalism,” Rogers said, adding that the SCPA encourages responsible journalism. “I don’t trust the government to say who’s qualified to be a journalist, and I’m surprised he does.”
Rogers said his organization, which The Post and Courier is a member of, accredits only newspaper journalists in the state. Despite Pitts lumping blogs in with other media outlets, Rogers said it’s crucial to note that “credibility” is judged differently between newspapers and blogs.