The Ministry of Truth

Guaranteed 100% true. You can count on it.

Last week, ‘citizen journalism’ (more on this term in a minute) suffered its first major crisis….maybe.

A CNN iReporter posted an iNews item (lots of i’s here), that Apple CEO Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack.  CNN posted the item on its iReporter online site, and stock prices (and presumably Steve Jobs) reacted predictably.

The item was false.

Note: this was in print, not even video, but worth talking about here.

Some parts of the blogosphere reacted with horror to this, decrying that at long last “Citizen Journalism” had proven to be a danger to society and journalism.  Some, on the extreme right wing, called for its control.

Here’s one posting I particularly like from

What we’ve been warning for years about the dangers of this democratization of the media is happening and this incident has opened the floodgate for the mass of idiots convinced that all it takes to be a journalist is a computers and an internet connection, not a functional brain.

Grammatical errors aside, the writer is upset…nay, terrified, of the prospect of millions who believe that all it takes to be a journalist is a computer and an internet connection.

Well, guess what!

And thank God for that. God and the Constitution of the United States, which happens to guarantee that right.

Now, in all fairness, there are also intelligent voices on b-roll:

There have been several court cases (like this one or this one or this one concerning Craigslist) concerning online service providers, in which the owners of the sites were sued for items posted by other people. My understanding is that under the Communications Decency Act, the owner of such a website is not liable for such postings because they are not publishers but merely a provider of a venue for individuals to self-publish. Most of these cases have been dismissed as a result.

CNN will simply argue that their crappy citizen journalism site is just an online service provider and falls under the protection of the law. And I suspect a court will agree.

Is the Citizen Journalism ‘crappy’ in this case?

Of course it is.

And so what?

A free press is messy. It is supposed to be.  The solution to too much free speech is more free speech, to paraphrase Justice Felix Frankfurter.

And in a wild and uncontrolled world of limitless free speech, there are those who are going to abuse the priviledge. They are going to print false facts.  The Jobs heart attack was clearly a false fact.  CNN did not present this as their news. They presented it in their iReporter online section. Caveat Emptor.

Is this false report a warning flag to stop the notion of ‘Citizen Journalism”? I think not.

Should we establish a ‘Ministry of Truth” that would guarantee that everything we received as ‘journalism’ was ‘true’?

This would be highly problematic.  Fox News, for example, would probably have to cease operations immediately.

But more to the point is that we must attain a level of maturity with respect to a technology which clearly allows anyone and everyone access to write whatever they like and publish whatever the like.  (which I think is very healthy indeed). But it is a new world for us.  The Ministry of Truth (ie, CBS, NBC or whomever) that used to exist is being shattered. Good.

We are now, for the first time, entering into a truly Free Press.  We have never been here before.

H L Mencken once wrote that a free press was free only for those who could afford one.

In those days, that meant buying a printing press, paper, ink and a newspaper to distribute your ideas.  Today, it means a word processor and an internet connection. And yes, that is all it takes.

So now a million voices are going to bloom.

You are going to hear from people you never heard from.  In 5 years in Iraq, how many Iraqis have you heard from?  Zero?  Exactly.

But this is going to change.

New voices are going to start speaking. And every once in a while, one of them, like the iReporter on CNN is going to simply lie.


Ever go to the supermarket?

Ever see a tabloid that said “500 Pound Boy Found on Mars”

Did you think that was true?  It was, after all, right there in print.

Did it make you think, ‘boy, we got to control this free press thing. Anyone can print anything they want. It’s dangerous. People might think that there ARE 500 pound boys on Mars”

I don’t think so.

350 years of newspapers have given us a maturity in dealing with print.

Now we have the web.

It’s going to be a new world.

Time to grow up.

Oh…and one last note:  Citizen Journalist is a tautology.

There is no difference between citizen and jouranlist.

The First Amendment guarantees every citizen that right.

It is not something you have to earn.


18 responses to “The Ministry of Truth

  1. Excellent post Michael. Great way to start a Monday

  2. You have two choices Michael, considering that you have chosen to copy my post from B-roll we can keep it here or I’ll post it everywhere else.
    I tell you what Michael, I corrected your Italian when you were on your honeymoon and you can feel free at anytime to correct my English. But I know how important these infantile patronizing mean to you and to your ego, so go for it buddy, I have big shoulders.
    Your reply here is quite different from what you posted as “oldcbsguy” on TVSPY.
    Your use of words like “horror and terrified” is an outstanding drama queen performance, and as in the famous quote of Rhett Butler to Scarlett:  “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Either way CJ does not affect my life or my career, none whatsoever. I’m not horrified or terrified. I just don’t read that crap because you never know if it’s the truth of somebody figment of his imagination. But I hate to see the good institution of journalism, even with all his faults going down the drain even faster that it should because of profiteering. I have no vested interest whatsoever; you on the other hand have 40 people that about every month hand over $2500 each to you and the travel channel to hear your BS about how they as citizens are the future of journalism.
    Now explain to me Mr. Professor of journalism, how does verification of fact for accuracy interfere with the first amendment?  I would say that accuracy and avoiding lies would if anything strengthens the freedom of speech and might also add trust to the CJ movement, don’t you think so?  This has nothing to do with censorship; nobody would censor anything like you would like to make everyone believe and play victim of some sort of convenient oppression plot. There are no government of any private agency involvement here just a courtesy to the reader to assure them that what they are reading is the truth, what’s so difficult about that, but even more important, isn’t lying to the people what communist do?  
    The system is actually very simple, they teach you this the first week in journalism school, let me explain to you how it works. You call the party in question and tell him that you heard this particular news, could they confirm or deny it. The party has 3 choices. Confirm it, and then the CJ is correct. Make no comments, then the CJ would post that the party had no comments and this could be interpreted as a yes or a no, or flat denying it, meaning that the story most likely is false but the simple fact that rumors exist even if denied could mean that something might be happening and therefore require further investigation. Of course by adding the investigation and verification factor to what you are selling would throw a monkey wrench into you entire concept because now citizens have to start making phone calls, they have to find out who to call and all the other good things associated to the truth. What a bummer, this is real work and some might actually think twice before signing the $2500 check.
    But you are right about one thing and that’s comparing your CJ to those tabloids at the check out counter.

  3. Comment on the above.
    Normally, I ban all posts from Nino as not worth looking at.
    I particularly like his blackmail threats at the beginning.
    A very class act indeed.
    But to answer your questions (as any professor should), there is nothing wrong with checking facts. Good to do. It protects your reputation. But the First Amendment does not required ‘fact checking’. That, in fact, is the point of the First Amendment. You are free to publish whatever ‘facts’ you like. If you don’t check the, certainly you are going to lose respect and viewers (though this is not always true. Look at Fox News!). There is, however, no requirement to ‘check facts’. That is antithetical to the very concept of a free press.
    There are countries that required journalists to ‘check facts’. Thus, the ‘Ministry of Truth’ graphic at the top. (Have you read 1984? I think it would be a good read for you.)
    Many countries in the world, alas, do in fact license both journalists and publications. It was, in fact, the norm until the US Constitution was written – a very radical document indeed.
    So Nino, please, by my guest and post my response ‘all over the internet’. That, after all, is why I write them.
    Oh, and by they way, it is 40 people every week (or so).

  4. It’s a courtesy Michael not a blackmail, it’s all about keeping the dirty laundry here where it belongs and save you added embarrassment.

  5. No.
    It’s blackmail.
    If you don’t do this…then I will do this.
    But, as I said, please feel free to put my thoughts all over the Internet. That is why I write them.
    By the way, did you ever read the two books I bought for you?

  6. Before you talk blackmail you should display all my posts that you have deleted or all the post that you referred to me but never gave me the chance to reply. What were you saying about the freedom of speech?

    I’m glad the you brought up the “requirements” of checking the facts, because I didn’t and it has nothing at all to do with the first amendment, I have no clue where that came from but you keep bringing it up. We are talking about the public trust in reading the truth and anyone paying to learn to become a CJ should be entering in a field where trust is of great importance not a field where the public is not sure if the material is truth or fiction.

    Nobody will violate the first amendment rights by forcefully removing the material and by punishing the publisher, there are actually new laws to protect these sites, it’s all about the public trusting what they read because if they don’t the entire VJ and CJ concept will fall apart.

    I did read the books, very interesting and thank you for sending them to me, but I only need one more book to figure what those books had to do with our conversation.

  7. I got to ask Michael; why do you ban Mr. Nino’s posts? It kind of sounds like you have your own “Ministry of Truth” going on.

    But I am glad to see you are such a staunch believer in the Constitution. I hope you feel just as strongly for all the Amendments including the 2nd.

  8. You cannot be a staunch advocate of the First Amendment and not support the second. Free presses are messy, so is the right to bear arms, but it is the messiness that freedom allows. The Second Amendment, like the First, was and remains a very radical concept. It puts the power in the hands of the people, and there it should remain.

    As for the Nino ban, he is the only person I have ever resorted to for this. But as a publisher, I retain the right, as does any publisher to decide what I publish on my site. The First Amendment does not require me to publish anything anyone writes. They, on the other hand, are free to publish what they like. For a deeper taste of Nino’s opinions on me, please feel free to check out his work on They are there for all to see. But that does not mean I have to put them here.

  9. C’mon Mike, this isn’t personal is what you do and what you say that I find it anti professional. My problem is that I ask too many questions that you can’t answer, and all these are questions based on statements you made. This current topic above is just one example, you specifically said that verification of facts is not important and unnecessary while I consider accuracy of facts and the truth the very fundamental of journalism, if not it’s fiction.

  10. I never said the checking of facts was not important. But it is not intrinsic to the right to publish. One may publish whatever they want, fact checked or not. The fact checking is in the hands of the author and the publisher. How well they check the facts will determine how much their words are respected in the future. We now move from Free Press to Free Market, which becomes the agent of enforcement.

  11. You’re right Michael, you didn’t say that wasn’t important, you said in a lengthy debate we once had that research, investigation and verification is unheard, that’s worst that unnecessary. Please don’t make me look for the file.

    Who ever said anything about denying the right to publish, you keep bringing this up, you are the only one saying this. What I’ve been saying is that the public has the right to know if whatever was published was the truth or was fiction. Truth is good for the freedom of speech, for the career for CJ and for journalism in itself.
    If those like yourself who promote and encourage citizen to become journalists don’t stress the importance of making the truth a first priority then the whole CJ system will fall apart for the lack of public confidence.

    Again you are avoiding the direct answer, how is the truth interfering with the freedom of speech?

  12. MR-

    I respect your right as a publisher to choose what you will allow on your site. I don’t know if Nino has an agenda or maybe he is simply malicious towards you personally. But I wonder if this is how “IT” happens. Somebody says things we don’t agree with or just don’t like and the decision is made to stifle their voice. Before long it’s the “States line” and anything else won’t be tolerated.

    I wouldn’t put up with deliberate lies, overt deception and personal defamation but if he just has a different point of view- so what. I for one like to evaluate all points of view (even your silly liberal POV).

    Glad to hear you support all the Amendments. Indeed our system may be messy but it’s the best one going.

  13. Hi Avery
    Normally, I refrain from getting into political discussions here. I reserve that for the Sandbox at tvspy.
    However, let me make one observation if I may.
    The terms Liberal and Conservative or Left and Right have little real meaning in this country. Certainly they are very different from what they mean in England, (where my wife is from and where we spend a lot of time).

    The US Constitution was and remains one of the most remarkable documents ever drafted. It was so incredibly radical at its time that it is truly a miracle that it became the basis for a nation – and what a nation!

    The notion that power was firmly and fully in the hands of the people, and that the people were free to say what they wanted, write what they wanted, do what they wanted is almost unbelievable. It was the most radical revolution you could have imagined. And Europe was terrified that there would be a contagion of these very dangerous ideas – and there was. The French Revolution soon followed. And others thereafter.

    I truly believe that if the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights were put up to a vote today in the USA, the vast majority of people would vote against it as far too dangerous.

    Too bad.

    But thank God we have it.

  14. The “messy” information environment allowed by the First Amendment has helped make the USA a great country. However, once information is branded by a publisher, there is a responsibility to the reading/viewing/listening public. This speaks to the relationship of the brand to the public. The CJ news item that CNN allowed onto it’s website put Apple stock into a tailspin and millions of people potentially lost millions of dollars. The SEC is investigating and CNN is cooperating. If this “news item” was a deliberate attempt to damage Apple, somebody could go to jail.

    I think there is an inherent responsibility in “reporting”, and certainly something posted on a CNN branded website should be vetted by CNN.

    Anyone can write whatever they want on their blogs, in their books (should they be published), or report anything they want in videos that they self-publish on the web. In fact, if you watch local access cable all over America you will find crazies spouting all kinds of weird shit under the umbrella of public access.

    But a CNN branded website has a different responsibility. There is an expectation that news items published on a website that has a CNN logo will be accurate. That’s why millions of people visit CNN websites each day, and small handfuls of people visit Citizen Journalist websites. Same for NBC, ABC, BBC, Fox News (well, maybe not), PBS, etc…. There is an expectation of accuracy.

    Publishing unsubstantiated reports from CJ’s will damage the brand name if the reports are not true. On the other hand, the financial reward for a big scoop is very high, so it may be worth the risk. If the brand is diluted by lots of crap, people will stop looking to it as accurate, will stop visiting the site, and the site owner will get what they deserve for publishing unsubstantiated crap.

  15. MR-
    Once again you really surprised me.

    The first time was at the academy. Prior to attending I was convinced my tuition money was probably wasted. But surprise, surprise you and those on your team exceeded my expectations and instilled the confidence and the tools to go after what I previously believed was not within my reach.

    And now with your comments about the Constitution; I know this isn’t the place but I would really like to try and understand why you support who I think you support for President. If you ever feel like waxing political, I would be interested in reading it.

    Take care,


  16. Sigh – Nino pontificating the b-roll propaganda once again – Say it ain’t so Joe! 😉

  17. Senseless writing is one thing. Sensless reading another? Mere consumption of ‘News’ should be avoided in any case…. It is up to any one of us to keep an eye on news items to decide wether or not they are of any sense….

  18. Hi Avery
    Normally, as I mentioned, I like to keep politics off of this site, but since you ask, I don’t particularly love either of the candidates. I liked and respected the McCain of 2000, but he has since sold out on all his principles. His selection of Palin for VP is the end. As for Obama, he is a complete unknown; a roll of the dice. Not the best choice for these times. My own favorite was and remains Bloomberg. Smart, aggressive, self-made, dynamic, honest, straight talking and a man who clearly understands both high tech and finance. A real leader. Too bad.

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