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Sunday, March 06, 2005

Gillmor sees "Gathering Storms" Over Freedom of Speech, Press in Apple, FEC

Dan Gillmor - former technology writer extraordinaire for the San Jose Mercury-News and author of the immensely important "We the Media" - has a superb posting that ties together three vital strands of an emerging crisis over Freedom of Speech and Press in America.

I say superb not because he kindly mentions your humble servant but because he connects the dots on issues that otherwise would not normally be linked and draws an important lesson from the connection. You can click on the headline above this posting to get the full Gillmor post.

The three strands are illustrated by the Apple suit in California seeking to force three bloggers to reveal their sources for information about upcoming products, the blog swarm on the FEC's prospective regulation of political speech on the Internet and the effort in Congress to craft a federal shield law for reporters.

The lesson Gillmor points to is the sad failure to date of the MSM to recognize its own self-interest is best served by accepting the Blogosphere as an immensely powerful ally on these and indeed many of the most important issues facing the profession.

Let's look at the Apple case first. Gillmor calls Apple's suit "a witchhunt" and notes that the judge in the case ruled that the bloggers involved do not meet the definition of a journalist under California law or the First Amendment. By the judge's "bizarre and dangerous standard," only people employed by MSM firms are journalists, Gillmor says. Bloggers need not apply.

A little further on, Gillmor notes and commends the intent of the recently introduced Pence-Boucher proposal to enact a federal shield law to protect reporters from having to disclose confidential sources, but he notes that the measure contains a definition of journalist that is prblematic because, like the California judge's opinion in the Apple case, it excludes bloggers.

On the FEC furor, Gillmor acknowledges that he has been a proponent of campaign finance reform in the past but warns that he now sees that it is becoming "a bludgeon to wipe out free speech in politics, precisely the kind of speech the nation's founders so ardently wanted to promote [and] is a perversion of their intent and common sense." Money is still a serious problem in our politics, but Gillmor says it's time to repeal the McCain-Feingold approach and start over again seeking a fix from a different direction.

The destructive pattern Gillmor sees here is the narrowing of Freedom of Speech and Press guaranteed by the First Amendment:

"We're moving toward a system under which only the folks who are deemed to be professionals will be granted the status of journalists, and thereby more rights than the rest of us. This is pernicious in every way.
"Mass media journalists and their bosses should be leading the fight against what's happening to bloggers. I fear they won't, because old media typically refuses to defend the rights of new entrants until the threats against the new folks directly threaten everyone.

"But my former colleagues in Big Media should understand that when we distinguish among kinds of journalists, discriminating against some because they're not working for organizations deemed worthy (or powerful) enough, trouble will arrive soon enough for everyone."

Amen brother! I've previously noted the threat to all journalists inherent in the Apple suit, but Gillmor gets to the guts of the issue here: The MSM ought to be helping fight the good fight for bloggers because it is in the MSM's self-interest to protect the most expansive possible definition of journalism. Otherwise, everybody faces the danger of being defined out, sooner or later. Making a deal with Big Government now that protects the MSM but excludes the Blogosphere is just bribing the alligator to eat you last.

I often wonder if a history lesson might not be in order on these matters because when the Founders wrote the First Amendment, the "press" of the day looked vastly more like today's Blogosphere than the MegaMedia world of the MSM. Newspapers were typically one-man operations and reflected the political leanings of the one man. Pamphlets were also commonly used to publish political essays on current issues and were widely circulated.

Much of what was printed in the newspapers of the day was editorial opinion and commentary, which not infrequently was published under pseudonyms derived from names of figures in the Roman Republic such as "Publius." There was no nationally circulated newspaper, nobody had even heard the term "journalist" and being a newspaper editor was not considered a profession. In more than a few quarters, being a newspaper person was considered a disreputable way of making a living. (Hmmm, I guess some things haven't changed much at all.)

Being an ink-stained wretch from the newspaper world, I consider myself part of the MSM. I love journalism, respect the role of the journalist in our society and prize above all the freedoms enshrined for all of us in the First Amendment. I pray my former colleagues in the MSM will see the wisdom in Gillmor's words and get on the right side of these matters before it is too late for all of us.