The Digital Journalist
Don't Ask
November 2004

by James Colburn

I hate to tell you this, but we're screwed. By "we" I don't just mean photojournalists but journalists in general. And not just the select few that cover the White House but journalists all over the country. You are going to see less, hear less and be able to report less. If you cross the government, prepare for legal action. If you piss off a cop, prepare to get busted and if you do something that the people in power don't like, you'd better hope that your employer has a good team of lawyers handy, and that he or she is willing to use them on your behalf. I'm talking about the journalistic equivalent of "Cabaret."

The Bush administration is, without a doubt, the most media-hating bunch to hit Washington this century. They control access to their boss with a rigidity that would make George Orwell scream. Bush's press conferences are few and very far between and the only time a photographer is allowed "behind the scenes" is when they want to show their boss doing something manly, like cutting wood or driving a pickup. You may be "inside the bubble" but that bubble is getting smaller and smaller and the air inside is starting to get real foul.

The Justice Department - your Justice Department - has launched concerted efforts to intimidate journalists with subpoenas and threats of jail time. They've encouraged a disdain for truth-telling (read: whistle-blowing) that's beginning to look like a "bunker" situation and they look back and laugh when the cops in New York and D.C. trample on the rights of protestors and the photographers who cover them. And New York and D.C. cops used to be SO cool.

Oh yes. You freelancers? Think weddings. Think dog portraits. You'd better get used to taking lots of "happy" pictures to make a living because controversy will ruin you. You'll get arrested if you try to photograph a line of people trying to vote. You'll get arrested if you want to photograph a power plant or a bridge. You won't be able to get into many events because you're not "with the traveling press" and you won't be able to get in as an ordinary citizen without signing a loyalty oath.

Sit back and buckle up folks. It's going to be a very bumpy ride.

© James Colburn
Contributing Writer