Apple Computer's disgusting attack on three online journalism sites, in a witch hunt to find out who (if anyone) inside the company leaked information about allegedly upcoming products, has taken a nasty turn. Too bad it's not surprising -- and journalists of all kinds should be paying attention.
A judge in California has decided that the sites don't qualify as "journalism" (AP) under state law and/or the First Amendment. By his bizarre and dangerous standard, I apparently stopped being a journalist the day I left my newspaper job after a quarter-century of writing for newspapers. (Note: At the request of lawyers for the sites, I've filed declarations -- here (104k PDF) and here (1MB PDF) -- saying that in my opinion these sites are performing a journalistic function. I haven't been paid to do so.)
Apple's bullying is bad enough. But the California case is just one of several harbingers of trouble for the online journalism world.
Another was the deliberate provocation from a member of the Federal Elections Commission, Bradley Smith, who's a harsh opponent of the McCain-Feingold law regulating campaign finance. He told CNet that current law requires the FEC to regulate the speech of bloggers and other online denizens who dare to discuss politics.
I regard this more as saber-rattling than a serious threat, at least for now. And it's also clear that Smith is trying to get Congress to punch a hole in the law to make it ineffective. I find myself agreeing increasingly with folks on the political right, including the Heritage Foundation's Mark Tapscott, who (among others) observes that the law is becoming an excuse for the outright regulation, and suppression, of speech.
As someone who supported the intent of McCain-Feingold but now agrees it needs reform if not repeal (and then try again with something better), I wish there was some recognition from those who want to torpedo the law outright that modern politics is being wrecked by the overwhelming influence of money, with serious effects on our republic. When politics becomes a system of one-dollar, one-vote -- and it has become precisely that in recent years -- we need to do something to restore at least a semblance of fairness.
But to use this desire for reform as a bludgeon to wipe out free speech in politics, precisely the kind of speech the nation's founders so ardently wanted to promote, is a perversion of their intent and common sense. Smith's remarks are a red flag waving at the blogging bulls, and they're responding just as he surely hoped -- with fury.
Meanwhile, several weeks ago, two well-meaning members of Congress introduced legislation designed to address the increasing attacks on professional journalists. The Free Flow of Information Act (H.R. 581) has some good points, namely its attempt to give reporters a way to shield sources from unwarranted exposure. But it sharply circumscribes the definition of who's a journalist -- and appears to explicitly exclude bloggers and other non-traditional online journalists.
Who's get the protection? The legislation would give it to:
A) an entity that disseminates information by print, broadcast, cable, satellite, mechanical, photographic, electronic, or other means and that--In other words, bloggers need not apply unless they work for a major publication or broadcast.
(i) publishes a newspaper, book, magazine, or other periodical;
(ii) operates a radio or television broadcast station (or network of such stations), cable system, or satellite carrier, or a channel or programming service for any such station, network, system, or carrier; or
(iii) operates a news agency or wire service;
(B) a parent, subsidiary, or affiliate of such an entity; or
(C) an employee, contractor, or other person who gathers, edits, photographs, records, prepares, or disseminates news or information for such an entity.
See a pattern?
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.
In a world where anyone can be a journalist, we can't let government or Big Media decide who has the right to inform the public about matters of interest or urgency. The priesthood should be dissolving, not gaining strength -- yet rulings and legislation like these move things in precisely the wrong direction.