Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Really Scary Stuff!

New technologies unleash changes that turn societies on their heads.

These dislocations can be very disorienting.

Even though the printing press was invented in 1452, its full impact was not really felt until the mid 18th Century. Newspapers started to develop around that time, and in France, a nobleman named Denis Diderot decided to publish the world’s first Encyclopedia.

It would contain all the knowledge in the world, and be written in the vernacular so that anyone could read it.

Diderot received permission from the government in 1750 and embarked upon the project. But the plan almost immediately met massive resistance from the nobility. What was Diderot thinking? they asked. What would happen when any peasant could read the Encyclopedia and learn how to build a waterwheel or drill a well or refine iron? They would abandon their serf jobs and start their own small businesses! Who would till the fields? Who would be the servants? The nobles immediately moved to suppress.

The project was actually suspended by the French courts in 1752 and in 1759 the Encyclopedia was formally suppressed. It was not published until 1770, twenty years after Diderot began his work.

The notion of a Free Press was a long and tortured road, and along the way it met constant resistance from those whose lives the new technology was about to overturn.

Our own Constitution, drafted in 1798, not so long after the Encyclopedia, guaranteed a free press. The First Amendment says “Congress shall make no law abridging a free press”. It was a very radical idea – and not too popular. The first free press newspapers in this country elicited the Alien and Sedition Acts which tried to suppress the Free Press that had just been guaranteed.

I am reminded of this when I read today about a ‘warning’ of the cost of “Citizen Journalism” posted on,  the website for professional videographers – a class deeply threatened by the new technology. The ‘Warning”, entitled, “Costly Citizen Journalism”, gives a reference to an article in the Tampa Bay Online paper. The article points out that there have been “100 judgements against bloggers, totaling $17 million in the past 3 years”

Scary stuff!

The b-roll folks fall over themselves trying to figure out ways to ‘control’ the bloggers.

Not quite as scary as the French court’s suppression of the Encyclopedia, but pretty much from the same source.

Let’s put this in perspective. 100 suits against bloggers. According to Technorati, there are more than 70 million bloggers in the world. 70 million. 100 suits. That means that (ready?) the odds on getting sued are .0000000129. These numbers are so miniscule as to be virtually non existant. The odds on getting killed in a terrorist attack are vastly higher.

What we are seeing here is pure fear mongering.

But it is a fear that is very well placed.

Jobs will be lost.

Careers that once seemed secure are looking far less so.

The world is being turned upside down.

And the peasantry is being unleashed.

Scary? You bet.

The First Amendment was and remains an incredibly powerful yet radical law. The very concept simply does not exist in most countries, and before 1798, never before in the world. The notion of a truly free and untrammeled press is an institutionalized and perpetual revolution in the making. Most people, given the choice today in the US, would probably vote against it as ‘too dangerous’.

So we are fortunate to have it, but it has to be continually protected.

It is, I think, the very basis of our freedom.


11 responses to “Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

  1. …, the website for professional videographers – a class deeply threatened by the new technology

    Nothing else need be said with that quote.

  2. Ahh but Cliff, even the screechiest among them is ten times more employable than you. Perhaps you might like to develop some skills to go with your derision. I’m beginning to think a news crew burned down your village. Maybe a TV set fell over and crushed your cat. Got to be some reason for your jealous rage. Perhaps you should ditch moving pictures and take up stamp collecting. Unlike video, I bet you’d be good at it.

  3. We have laws that do not impinge on a free press, but provide protection to people who could be damaged by irresponsible reporting. There are also copyright laws that protect the rights of content owners. Citizen Journalists and Bloggers, like the press, should be held accountable if they violate these laws. The few bloggers that have judgments against them most likely deserved it for violating somebody’s rights. There is a responsibility that comes with creating media content whether you are a blogger, a VJ or the New York Times.

  4. Stewart – your response is SOP for the GOB’s of B-roll and it’s that very elitist attitude that brings about the perspective I and I’m sure others who ascribe to solo vj’ism have for b-roller types.

    Not a single one of the detractors has presented any civil, informed, mature discourse.

    Jealous? You are sadly mistaken.

  5. I knew that the B-Roll thread would get a response and reply here. Anytime someone starts trying to “legislate the media, or journalism” it is debatable. The B-Roll post first of all pointed out some facts about lawsuits against bloggers. Then it started discussing the ethical codes that journalists are asked to abide by, and asked how journalistic ethics could be carried forward into the digital future.

    There are two issues.

    First, libel and slander lawsuits happen to anyone, journalist or not. All should know and abide by the laws. Those who do not, should be prosecuted.

    Traditional journalism outlets – newspapers, TV, employ journalists who are generally educated on media ethics and laws, and held accountable for lapses by their employers/associations. They know how to be fair and accurate. But that does not guarantee they will be.

    Libel and slander do not pertain only to “journalists.” These laws apply to everyone.
    Bloggers are learning that they are not immune from prosecution.

    The other issue is about the definition of Journalism.

    Are bloggers journalists? Is anyone who posts information a journalist?

    The first amendment grants us all freedom of SPEECH and freedom of the PRESS. “Journalism” is not part of the constitution. Therefore, Journalism is not guaranteed. Free speech is protected and cannot be controlled. (exceptions do exist.) Free press is protected and cannot be controlled. (exceptions do exist.) But ethical journalism is not protected, nor guaranteed.

    What is “the press?” In the past, it was simply publishing content for the masses via the printing press. Then broadcast. Now the internet and anyone can publish to the masses. Anyone can publish. That is undisputable.

    What is free speech? It is saying whatever you want to say. We are all speaking our minds… so freedom of speech and the press is uncontrollable and welcomed by us all.

    Blogging is one person’s internet “press.” Anyone can speak their mind to the masses. No problem. Unavoidable, uncontrollable. Popular bloggers get more readers. Popular video gets more viewers. That is not debatable.

    The issue is not freedom of speech – we all welcome that. The issue is not freedom of the press – that is out of our control due to technology. We must accept these freedoms. Nobody is disputing these freedoms or wanting to “control” freedom of speech or the press.

    It is too easy to mix the definitions of “Speech” “Press” and “Journalism.” But they are entirely different words, with different meanings. So it is time to start using your higher education and start debating this issue more maturely.

    The heart of this debate is the definition of “Journalism.” Not Speech. Not The Press. Journalism.

    Then, whether a “journalist” must abide by ethical standards? What are those standards? Who enforces them?
    And whether or not a seal of approval from a journalism association will be of any value? Also, whether or not “ethics” can or should be abided by voluntarily, or enforced?

    We all agree that the digital future is exciting, new and different. Therefore, it is perfectly normal and predictable that the question of ethics in journalism should again be debated. It is not B-Rollers wanting to “control” freedom of the press. Many on B-Roll are intelligent, experienced journalists. Not just some TV photogs scared about their future employment.

    What is journalism?

    Here is my definition (untested): Journalism is communication of factual, truthful, fair and accurate information, to society, about society, that serves and benefits society.

    I haven’t thought that out too much… but that is my working defintion for now. Nowhere is that type of “speech” or “press” protected or guaranteed in the constitution. Journalism is different.

    One must define “journalism.” There are journalism associations, that have ethics codes. In the future – will they enforce them? Or not? Should a media organization “brand” their newscast as a provider of ethical, accurate, fair, journalism…. or not?

    Are ethics codes worthless as the paper they are written on?

    That is the issue. Because society should be served.

    Journalists serve society.

    Advocates serve themselves.

    Opinions are not facts.

    Speech is not journalism.

    The Press is not journalism.

    So what is journalism? That is going to become more and more important in the future. That is why we are discussing how to define journalism now.

    If bloggers are simply writing opinion – that is freedom of speech.

    If bloggers provide video of something – how do viewers know it is not staged, or misleading? If bloggers post videos that are edited to mislead, misinform, or cause confusion… is that ethical journalism? Or not? And how will viewers know?

    More and more, the pressure to make money will cause (and is causing) TV stations, websites, and newspapers – to pander to the public – with unethical presentations of content. (Paying money for content, serving themselves with promotional stories, advocating one side, etc…)

    At some point – Journalism associations might want to take a stronger stand on enforcing ethics codes. Only providing membership to those journalists and outlets who demonstrate ethical journalism over time. This might become something the public would want to see, appreciate and value. This stamp of approval might also be a desirable “certification” for journalism outlets – a promise to uphold ethical journalism standards.

    Anyone can shoot video. Anyone can edit, publish and blog. The information flow is fast and furious. We can all pontificate, give opinions, and make videos. Freedom of the PRESS and SPEECH are guaranteed, undeniable and unavoidable in the U.S. (Thank God.)

    But ethical JOURNALISM is not guaranteed. It is a CHOICE we have to make, and a choice corporations need to make. And those who choose to abide by journalism ethics codes – will want viewers to know it. Viewers will want a trustworthy outlet for solid Journalism.

    Now is the time to separate the chaff from the wheat. People want a healthy society. Not one full of innuendo, misinformation, lies, slander, misinformation, advocacy, etc.. People want to cut through the crap. How will this be accomplished in the future….when the flow of information is as wide as all rivers combined. That is what this discussion is about.

  6. Correction:
    I wrote, “ethical journalism is not protected, nor guaranteed.”

    It is in fact protected. But not guaranteed.

  7. Hey Eric
    And extremely intelligent, thoughtful and well thought contribution. Required reading for anyone interested in the topic.

    I don’t take issue with most of it, however, when it comes to Journalism and the Press, to me they are the same thing. In this country we do not license journalists (as they do in many other countries) specifically because of the First Amendment guarantee. Anyone is free to call themselves a journalist and print and write whatever they want.

    This is a tradition that goes back to Thomas Paine and the American Revolution. Was Paine a journalist? He would have thought so. The British would have thought him a rebel rouser and radical. That is why we don’t distinguish. One man’s truth is another’s fiction, and to paraphrase Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, the best cure for a bad free press is more free press.

  8. A really excellent book, which I highly recommend to you on this topic is The Minnesota Rag by Fred Friendly.

    It is the story behind Near v. Minnesota, a Supreme Court ruling which laid down quite clearly the extent to which the First Amendment protects journalists and journalism, no matter how heinous their writing.

    I think you would find it very enlightening.

  9. I again apologize for the long dissertation. Sometimes I get going…. and can’t stop my fingers.

    Licensing journalists is impossible. It cannot and should not be done. Libel, privacy, fair trial, national security laws, etc… are the “controlling authority” of the press. Otherwise, we are pretty much free to speak, and publish in this country.

    After those laws…. then Ethics Codes are a secondary controlling authority. Ethics codes are voluntary, and not controlled nor guaranteed by the government. But ethics in journalism is traditionally important in the U.S. Will that continue into the future?

    Laws are black and white. Ethics remain grey.
    Journalists need to understand the entire spectrum of laws and ethics codes.

    In the future – will journalists who consistantly abide by ethics codes be “certifiable?” Giving the viewer some confidence that they are reliable for accurate, fair information? Will associations step up their efforts to lead in these areas? Or will it just be a free for all?

    I am definately not an expert. So I welcome any schooling on the history of this debate. Certainly, the writers of the first amendment had no idea about the internet.

    As for Near vs. Minnesota, I took a look at my Law book, and found that this case deals with prior restraint. Certainly, I do understand prior restraint, and do not favor any government or anyone restraining information before it is published, unless certain criteria is met (national security etc…)

    As for the definition of “the press:” I think the writers of the first amendment understood the press to include ALL types of communications published. Not only reporting journalism, but also opinion, editorials, and commercial advertisements, entertainment, fiction, religious writings, etc…. The term “the press” I think must have included all forms.

    I specifically think “Journalism” is a sub section of “the press.” I think that is why you have codes of ethics specifically written for journalists. That is why Opinion and Editorials have traditionally been separated in newspapers…so readers understand the difference. Will that continue on the internet? In the future, viewers might want to know which content provider is providing opinion… and which is consistantly providing ethical journalism.

    The “open marketplace of ideas” is not in danger. Quite the opposite is taking place. However, in the past, society had a central marketplace to find these ideas. Now, it is truly an open marketplace. Yet, imagine shopping for a product at a market with millions of choices. You could easily be confused or swindled. I am simply saying that at some point, it will be useful and wise to identify ethical journalism as a brand….. so in the huge open marketplace of ideas…. people will have some clue that ethical “journalism” is being practiced.

  10. Hi Eric
    I don’t mind the length. All very interesting reading.
    I referred you to Near, and more specifically to the Friendly book because along with prior restraint, the court decision really binds journalism to free press. (See Anthony Lewis on this).
    As for the marketplace of ideas, it is true that now it is going to become the wild west, but that is not so bad. For all of our lives we have lived in a kind of Soviet economy of ideas – ‘state’ control, (the state being Viacom or NBC), and even with the most benign of intentions, it cannot beat the vibrancy of a truly free market – but they can be very scary – and messy. Caveat Emptor!

  11. Great post, this is something I’ve experienced firsthand in my journalism program at UNT. Whenever media professionals from broadcast and print come to classes and panels, they make fun of bloggers and talk about how they are the only people who have a guarantee of credibility because bloggers can say anything they want and professionals are held to, well, professional standards. This always cracks me up because they turn around and complain about how nobody watches their news programs or picks up their papers anymore. The nobility are afraid and don’t know what to do except lash out. I think eliminating net neutrality i s a step towards clamping down on the peasants.

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