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April 13, 2005

Am I a Journalist?

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

There's a good conversation going on over in the thread replying to my latest screed on the Apple v Does case. I wanted to opine a bit in response to a comment from Seth Finkelstein. He notes that "Journalistic purpose isn't a get-out-of-court-evidence-free card" and that it's a boundary we as society have to draw. He's not arguing where the boundary should be, but I want to, in part because I think the boundary goes right through the middle of me.

(I want to be crystal clear that I'm speaking in this post solely for myself. Not for anyone else who posts here, nor for any other blogger and certainly not for any organization.)

On the one side of this line, I don't think I'm a journalist. In my mind a journalist is someone who reports on, investigates, publicizes events from the world and makes them known to an interested public in the service of making that public informed. I think we American intellectuals agree that one of the ideals of democracy is action and decision taken by an informed public.

But that's not what I do. What I do is point out things other people have done, or said. I give emphasis and weight to what I find worthy, and I push an overt agenda. On this side of the line what I'm doing is much closer to editorial than reportage. What I strive for is less an informed voice than for a sea of voices distinct within the stream of debate.

I don't much like nor respect the current American journalistic notion of "fairness." There are not always two sides to a debate; sometimes there's one or there are many. Nor should a voice be constrained from calling a spade a spade or labeling bullsh*t as bullsh*t. You may notice that the sources I quote from (Cringely, Aharonian, Geist, etc.) are often strongly opinionated. I may not always agree with them, but I respect them trying to take a stand and expand the boundaries of discussion rather than just regurgitating the latest anonymous AP wire item or White House release.

If that's the image, am I journalist? I'd lean towards "no."

But then we get these emails. People read what I write and send me pointers or information. I like getting these emails and I'll often write entries in response to them. If someone mailed me something and asked me to keep their name out of it, I'd do it. Pretty much without thinking. I was brought up watching the Watergate hearings and I believe in the (at least theoretical) power of the press to balance out the powers and expose the corruption of our institutions. I recognize that the ability to have and protect anonymous sources is essential to that function. I believe that any time a reporter gives up a source we weaken the whole structure.

If that's an aspiration, am I a journalist? I'd lean towards "yes."

So, pax Seth. I recognize you're not trying to argue where to draw that boundary. But I think we bloggers had better have this argument, and damned soon.

Comments (10) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Counterpoint


1. Steve Betts on April 13, 2005 4:29 PM writes...

Actually, I think you ARE a journalist. The expression of opinion is what actually makes you a journalist. The person who reports the facts is called a reporter. I think that Chris makes the case best here:

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2. Neo on April 13, 2005 11:31 PM writes...

Your link doesn't work. It redirects to a page that tells all non-Americans to go away in no uncertain terms. What the f*ck is with this discrimination -- and why on earth is Copyfight, of all blogs, apparently condoning it? More open access to information is at the very heart of the "are bloggers journalists" debate, yet you link to a site that shuts out 95% of the world for no reason of technical necessity I can think of. That's not kosher. I suggest you change that link to an equivalent page that is more open. Besides, shame on any Web site that violates RFCs so blatantly by serving different content depending on where or who someone is.

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3. Crosbie Fitch on April 14, 2005 6:02 AM writes...

Either are morons or they're paying their legal team too much money. Hmmm... needs rephrasing.

Go here if you're desperate to see what they don't think you should see:

A journalist is not entitled to steal information simply because they know their audience is interested in it. Such theft is only warranted if a greater crime is committed by NOT publishing it.

Just because I get my hands on a pre-release copy of the Star Wars III DVD does not mean that I am entitled to put a BitTorrent of it on my Blog simply because I know there's public interest in it - and I bloody well should have to reveal the name of the person who gave the copy to me.

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4. Brad Hutchings on April 14, 2005 7:09 AM writes...

What Crosbie said and... You further complicate things if you're operating a clearly commercial blog. Young Nick gets his cafeteria money selling ads for his site which attracts eyeballs by offering future plans that generally aren't intended to be public knowledge. Clearly, some companies use these outlets to put out marketing feelers as Apple did with MacWEEK in the 90s. But if you're making a business out of dishing up secrets for public consumption, you've got to be especially careful about what you dish up, how you solicit information, and whether you wrap what your smoking with notices from big companies or if you take 5 minutes between classes to call them back and find out what's up :-).

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5. Ronald Coleman on April 14, 2005 9:24 AM writes...

Crosbie, the "Star Wars III" point is valid but easy to distinguish. This is not really "information" as such but a creative work. The sharper point of this pencil is information in the traditional sense of the word, specifically proprietary or otherwise confidential information.

The complete lack of barriers to entry on the Internet is a marvelous thing, but its flip side is the absence of institutional restraints that recognize the nned for the sort of care about other peoples' secrets Brad is talking about and that really do need to be in place. This is not a concept to which we need recourse to the Constitution or to the intellectual property regime but, in my view, it's a matter of basic fairness.

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6. Dr. wex on April 14, 2005 9:43 AM writes...

Well, as I'm an American and can only browse the Web from America I had no idea the link wouldn't work outside the US. As to why Showtime have decided not to let non-US browsers link to Penn & Teller's show Bullshit I can't even begin to guess.

That said, I would like to avoid rehashing the Apple debate here - that's why I moved this out of that conversation thread. What I'd like to do is engage on the topic(s) of what makes a journalist and where we want to draw that line. Issues of reposting copies of creative works are pretty irrelevant, except insofar as I think we need to preserve the right to excerpt and comment upon for review. I used to write SF reviews and ran a reviewzine for a while. Many such zines use copies of cover images and quotations from the reviewed material, which I think is still covered as fair journalistic use. Wholesale reposting is a strawman.

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7. Seth Finkelstein on April 14, 2005 10:55 AM writes...

Alan, as I view it, the key issue is not "what makes a journalist", but rather "what is the public interest?"

It's possible to unarguably be a journalist, yet still be compelled to testify by a court - see the Valerie Plame (CIA operative identity) case for a very prominent example.

The answer to that question *can't* be "anything", without a lot of very negative consequences. That's a real _reducto ad absurdem_.

Permalink to Comment

8. Crosbie Fitch on April 14, 2005 10:55 AM writes...

There is precisely zero difference between a commercial secret and an unreleased creative work. It matters not one whit what the nature of the commercial secret is, whether the ingredients of a cookie mixture or half a gig's worth of movie.

It's all information.

Patents were created precisely to persuade companies to publish commercial secrets so mankind wouldn't risk losing them.

Similarly with copyright - "Please let the public see your work. We'll let you have exclusive publication rights for a limited time after first publication in exchange for the work entering the public domain thereafter"

HOWEVER, until publication - for whatever motive, whether economic or philanthropic - secrets forever remain secrets. No-one has a right to steal and publish another's secrets however interesting they are.

A journalist or their agents can obtain any information they like, but only through legitimate methods. Burglary in order to break open someone's safe and steal a personal diary is not ethical by any stretch of the imagination - unless there really was a 'greater good' case to be made, i.e. revealing a far greater crime or potential harm than the theft itself.

A journalist is not 'Licensed to conduct industrial espionage, with themselves and their agents immune from prosecution', however much they might like. They may be forgiven and their agents granted immunity if their actions result in a greater good, but this qualification cannot simply be dispensed with or distorted into a redefinition of 'greater good' as 'mucho entertainment to the masses'.

I believe copyright is completely incompatible with the Internet, however, it does not then follow that it's open season on UNPUBLISHED/UNRELEASED intellectual property (commercial secrets, unreleased creative works, etc.).

The choice to retain something as a secret is a fundamental right (enshrined in Europe as a moral right), and the choice to publish is a key liberty in a free society - which should be protected to the fullest extent possible in law.

Journalists must endeavour to retain their ethical integrity when balancing the needs of society (protection from harm - not entertainment) with any illegitimately obtained information that comes their way.

Permalink to Comment

9. Crosbie Fitch on April 14, 2005 11:19 AM writes...

It's nice to think of Intellectual Property as secret/unpublished or published, and makes ethical arguments much easier.

However, things can get a bit tricky. If we imagine a case where there is a very weakly secured commercial secret known to 50,000 signatories to a corporation's NDA, and a journalist who happened to associate among many of them at a conference got to overhear the commercial secret...

Perhaps the magnitude of the crime in publishing a commercial secret is proportional to the level of care that was taken in securing the secret, and the amount of effort it took to obtain the secret?

As to the question of 'what is a journalist?'. A journalist is anyone who regularly publishes information (via whatever medium).

Permalink to Comment

10. Alexander Wehr on April 14, 2005 9:10 PM writes...

With all due respect to your opinion on them. so called "main stream" journalists most definitely push agendas. They modify and axe their stories because they may "offend" sponsors, or the government, or simply the status quo.

They will go out of their way to villify, exhonorate, promote, denounce. Granted they're not as blatant as soviet propaganda ministers, but their tactics are easily seen through by someone who maintains a non-partisan position.

Your purpose is journalistic. You provide feedback, correct errors in perspective, and provide information others would seek to conveniently "leave out" or bury in their attempts to push their take or preserve their ad revenues.

It's insidious how the press has been undermined by partisan politics and the all mighty dollar, but I do notice a distinct difference in the media today from what it was 15 years ago, and bloggers act as a journalistic ballast to stabilize the rocking ship.

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