Freedom of the press is great if you own one*

I was going to respond to this piece by Margaret Simons about bloggers and journalists but, as often happens, Tim Dunlop has written exactly what I would have said, only better. This used to happen with such frequency that we coined the term ‘blogtwins’ and perhaps now that Tim is returning to Australia, the pattern will re-emerge.

Meanwhile the US Supreme Court has declined to hear a case in which journalists have appealed against a ruling that they should either reveal anonymous sources or go to jail. A noteworthy feature of the NY Times treatment of the story is the presentation of the issue in terms of whether journalists are entitled to special protection not available to bloggers. At the end of the story Rodney A. Smolla, dean of the University of Richmond School of Law is quoted as follows

The federal judiciary, from the Supreme Court down, has grown very skeptical of any claim that the institutional press is deserving of First Amendment protection over and above those of ordinary citizens … The rise of the Internet and blogger culture may have contributed to that. It makes it more difficult to draw lines between the traditional professional press and those who disseminate information from their home computers.

The failure of journalists to establish a special exemption raises the more general question of whether and when people should be compelled to reveal details of their private conversations. If constitutional limits are to be imposed on such questioning, it may be better to derive them from the right to privacy in general rather than the specific claims of the press. Alternatively, and perhaps preferably, it might be better for the legislature to provide a public interest exemption of some kind.

* And nowadays everyone does

9 thoughts on “Freedom of the press is great if you own one*

  1. John,

    I have now read Tim’s comments on Maggie’s piece, and find I’m curious as to what you would have actually written had you done so.

    For mine, and as much as I dearly love TD, he’s nitpicking more than anything else.

    Surely her main point is non-(un?)-contentious.

    We must not lose sight of the fact that journalism is a vital function in society. And there is a hint of a danger that we will allow ourselves to be fobbed off by the powers that be with the line – “Hey, get a blog.”

    Extracting information is a fulltime occupation – it cannot be performed by dilletantes and amateurs, no matter how willing/nocturnal.

    I will dare to set myself up for a big fall here, but if I produced work of the same quality of my tawdry blog in my day job, I’d be very much not looking forward to the impending IR regime.

  2. In Science when we make a citation, we have to supply ALL the details.

    What is the problem?

  3. In science, nobody will lock you up for consorting with sinister forces or investigating a dark matter.

    Fairly large and obvious distinction between the fields of endevour, or am I just feeding the troll?

  4. wbb, Tim agrees with the main point and so do I. Finding out facts is crucial, and it’s hard professional work, which journalists do and bloggers, generally, don’t. I’ve said this before quite a few times.

    The problem with the article is that having made this point, Simons goes on to do a whole lot of special pleading. For example, she claims not merely interviewing but “It involves understanding and using public records. It involves taking the time and trouble to read often lengthy and impenetrable documents, reports and statistics. It involves asking stupid questions until you understand.”

    This is a pretty fair description of what academics involved in public policy debates do all the time, but Simons claims that it’s something exclusive to journalists and unknown to academics.

    In fact, as regards economics, it’s the opinion and analysis writers (professional and amateur) who do most of this stuff. The news stories are more commonly simple rehashes of official press releases, understandably so given the overriding requirement for speed.

  5. Tim Dunlop’s point about whither *mainstream* journalism (and why isn’t Simons more concerned about this) is a fair one.

    My own explanation here is that Simons can’t/won’t talk about this one, because there is a proverbial elephant in the room, per the rise of Fox News, et al; see:

    Until Simons’ generation does something about the underlying problem, the labour market’s race to the bottom will only accelerate – taking quality journalism (as well as academic research , I might add) down with it.

  6. In terms of old-school journalism, blogging might best be characterized as newspaper editorial pages on steroids. It succeeds (at least for me) because it is a vastly more satisfying forum for opinion and feedback than the traditional editorial/letters pages of newspapers.

    But Simons point (if she has one and I agree with Dunlop that that is not clear) that investigative journalists do the heavy lifting seems self-evident. That’s not to belittle analysis, but they’re two different endeavours.

    Investigative journalism is paid for by the advertising dollars it generates. I wonder what a really good scoop is worth? Is it worth more or less in the online world? The answer to that question will largely dictate what happens to investigative journalism as the traditional media moves online.

  7. -“Alternatively, and perhaps preferably, it might be better for the legislature to provide a public interest exemption of some kind.”-

    This might be the go. Simultaneously, if the threshold is going to be harder to meet for any sort of journalist, it might be worth developing a policy/lobbying approach that simultaneously deals with our attrocious defo laws.

    1 or both of the above categories could be expanded for ‘reportage’, whoever by, where it appears not to be motivated by malice and where the alleged facts are clearly separated from any ‘comment’.

  8. I think the right to speak your mind (sometimes called free speech) and the right to keep your peace (sometimes called the right to remain silent) are pretty fundamental human rights.

    As long as we are in reform mode can we do away with defamation laws. If people want to say bad things about Abe Saffron then he should be free to say bad things back. However save the lawyers for the serious stuff.

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