Politics & Other Mistakes: Jerk-o-rama

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The people who run the news media are mostly jerks. But to keep that in context, the people who run the government are even bigger jerks.

The most arrogant of opinion columnists (turns mirror to the wall) are nothing on the jerkiness scale compared to New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and the average Portland city councilor.

Journalists may annoy some folks with slanted coverage, damage reputations with sloppy reporting, and ignore important issues to make room for light-hearted lifestyle stories, but we don’t actually steal your money, suppress your rights or sexually molest you.

Mostly.

If I’m going to be stranded on a desert island, I’d rather put up with Bill Nemitz than any of the Piscataquis county commissioners. At least Nemitz would wear a mask.

I mention all this because there’s currently a bill in the Maine Legislature to grant politicians more control over the news media. This is roughly equivalent to handing a 5-year-old kid a running chainsaw.

The measure in question is sponsored by Republican state Rep. Heidi Sampson of Alfred. It’s called the “Stop Guilt by Accusation Act,” and it’s being promoted by a right-wing outfit that masquerades under the convoluted title of “De Facto Attorney Generals/Special Forces of Liberty/Clean Services Foundation,” which seems to be based in Tennessee. It appears to consist of a whackjob, a website, and not much more.

Nevertheless, the DFAG/SFL/CSF has managed to get bills introduced in Maine and at least three other states that attempt to impose the following restrictions on news coverage:

• If a media outlet reports that someone has been accused of wrongdoing, it’s required to report the outcome of the case.

• If it fails to do so, it would be subject to civil penalties.

• Use of mug shots taken by police would be banned once the defendant is acquitted, pleads no contest, or is convicted of a lesser offense.

Sampson told the Bangor Daily News the measure will “reverse the erosion of fundamental civil liberties when individuals are cast in a false light, thereby destroying lives.”

Before putting up with more of this nonsense, it’s worth noting that this legislation is most likely unenforceable. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution expressly forbids the government from imposing rules like this on the press.

“There’s no question this bill is unconstitutional,” Justin Silverman, executive director of the New England First Amendment Coalition, told the Lewiston Sun Journal.

“The government should never be telling journalists how to do their jobs,” said Meagan Sway, the ACLU of Maine’s policy director, in a BDN story.

There’s also the little matter of the chilling effect this bill could have on the public’s right to know what politicians and other public figures are up to. If it became law, publishers might be even more hesitant to pursue stories about important people accused or suspected of wrongdoing for fear they’d be hauled into court.

The reality is that the outcome of almost any case that even mildly tweaks the public interest is news. The laziest reporter can find the motivation to write about the follow-up without the slightest need for a government cattle prod. Victims of unwarranted prosecutions generally receive plenty of publicity when they’re exonerated. Those found guilty of illegal activities have a lot more to worry about than their damaged reputations.

This misguided attempt to fix a problem that doesn’t exist seems to be the brainchild of Chris Sevier of Tennessee, who previously achieved notoriety by trying to marry his laptop computer in an unsuccessful attempt to undermine same-sex marriage. He also lost his law license after he stalked country singer John Rich, on one occasion sending Rich a photo of himself clad in nothing but a strategically placed American flag.

Beats the average mug shot.

Sevier seems like just the sort of respectable person any competent state legislator would want to help by sponsoring his weirdo bill.

On the bright side, both politicians and journalists can take heart in knowing there are still bigger jerks than them out there.

Exercise your First Amendment rights by emailing [email protected].