What’s Behind the Nutty Law to Register Journalists?

Mike Pitts, a Republican South Carolina state legislator, has proposed legislation to register journalists and how they do their jobs.

01.20.16 12:40 AM ET

It’s a good day for Mike Pitts, an otherwise obscure South Carolina state legislator who has discovered the path to instant fame: Introduce a bill to register journalists, enforce legal standards on reporters, and impose fines and criminal penalties for violations of said standards.

Pitts, a retired police officer and three-term Republican in the South Carolina House, who previously received fleeting recognition for his crusade to keep the Confederate Flag flying at the State Capitol after a white supremacist shot and killed nine black church members in Charleston, basked in the warm glow of national media attention on Tuesday after introducing H 4702,  “The South Carolina Responsible Journalism Registry Law.”

His legislative proposal was promptly celebrated, if that’s the right word, by media outlets ranging from Mother Jones to Yahoo to ABC News, and became a popular topic on Twitter (at least among members of the Fourth Estate).

“Always an easy way to get attention is to attack the press,” noted journalism professor and former CNN correspondent Charles Bierbauer, dean of the University of South Carolina College of Information and Communications. “Just as any political candidate knows, you only have to say something outrageous to get the media focused or to divert the media attention from whatever is presumably more important that they might be looking at.”

Bierbauer predicted to The Daily Beast: “Pitts is going to get his 15 minutes. Some would say he’s already had his 15 minutes.”

According to an official summary of Pitts’s legislation, a full version of which had yet to be posted on the South Carolina House website by Tuesday evening, its purpose would be “to establish requirements for persons before working as a journalist for a media outlet and for media outlets before hiring a journalist; to require the establishment and operation of a responsible journalism registry by the South Carolina Secretary of State’s Office; to authorize registry fees; to establish fines and criminal penalties for violation of the chapter; and for other purposes.”

Bierbauer predicted that Pitts’s bill, a conspicuous violation “of the words and the spirit of the First Amendment,” would die “an appropriate well-deserved death” in the Labor and Commerce Committee, to which it was referred for consideration.

South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, meanwhile, initially was disbelieving Tuesday afternoon when approached for comment on the journalism registry law at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, where his preferred Republican presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, was giving a talk.

“Is this a joke?” Graham demanded.

When assured that it wasn’t, former presidential candidate Graham, a severe Donald Trump critic who recently endorsed Bush after dropping out of the race, quipped, “I guess you can do the Muslim thing all at once with that and save money... I wouldn’t worry about it. I know the author. I know the legislature. It ain’t goin’ nowhere.”

Pitts, who didn’t return a phone call from The Daily Beast seeking an explanation, told South Carolina’s Post and Courier that his bill is essentially a piece of performance art calling out the press for its unsympathetic coverage of Second Amendment rights.

“It strikes me as ironic that the first question is constitutionality from a press that has no problem demonizing firearms,” said Pitts, an avid hunter and National Rifle Association member who occasionally has received unwelcome media scrutiny for using campaign funds for hunting trips in exotic locales. “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.”

Making the reassuring claim that he’s “not a press hater,” Pitts added: “Do journalists, by definition, really adhere to a code of ethics?... 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.”