Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Why Fear in the Fourth Estate is Good

There a was a remarkably feeble defense of freedom of the press in the “Media Equation" column by David Carr, in the New York Times this Independence Day week, juxtaposing journalists, whom Carr defines as people “responsible for following the truth, wherever it may guide them” and activists whom he defines as people dedicated to “winning an argument.”

“Taxonomy is important,” he writes “…because when it comes to divulging national secrets, the law grants journalists special protections that are granted no one else.”  Mr. Carr cites no law which your humble blogger believes may be due to the fact that no such law exists.  Shield laws in quite a few states favor journalists, but it is through political power not legal code that the press avoids prosecution for disclosure of classified information.
A journalist is simply
“a person engaged in journalism"

A journalist used to be defined as “a person whose occupation is journalism,… the collecting, writing editing and publishing of news or news articles through newspapers or magazines “(per your humble bloggers  hard-used 1969 copy of the American Heritage Dictionary).  Today,  Merriam Webster defines a journalist as “a person engaged in journalism,… the collection and editing of news for presentation through the media”

By higher authority than David Carr, the intent to find truth has not been added to the definition but "occupation" has been broadened to "engaged," "publishing," to "distribution," and "newspapers and magazines" to "media."  In further discussion "news" is also broadened to include “related commentary and feature materials.”

Truth only enters the definition of journalism as a conceit of journalism schools, the University of Minnesota in Mr. Carr’s case, and the marketing position of media such as Mr. Carr’s employer, the New York Times.  What Mr. Carr is apparently trying to do is parse, on the basis of intent, an argument against The Guardian’s reporting by Glenn Greenwald of  Edward Snowden's revelations about the NSA’s use of telephone and internet data.

The NSA revelations are making many in mainstream media uncomfortable.  No one is questioning the truth of the NSA revelations – only the right to voice them.  Mr. Carr’s contortions (although he pretends to concede the point in the column) have to do with claiming, for the New York Times and establishment journalism, the authority to use their own (well-intended and well-informed) editorial judgment about what should be public information while denying the same power to competitors or mere citizens who dare to exercise their own (misguided and argumentative) judgment about what should be public.

The NSA revelations highlight an uncomfortable, larger truth about the modern media equation.  Private speech, personal movement, and media consumption used to be difficult to monitor and relatively simple to protect.  Now, with new information technology, it all has become much harder to defend from prying eyes.  Increasingly we are relying on the good intent of our government and the private companies who can peer into the patterns of our lives.

The broader political-economic equation however, remains grounded in human nature.  Good intent is a weak factor in political-economic calculus whereas self-interest is paramount.

To avoid squirrelly twists like Mr. Carr's, we are better off placing the enlightened self-interest of media elites squarely on the side of free expression, open competition, and a balance of powers.  When it comes to divulging state secrets, members of the media must fear the same risk of prosecution as any citizen activist and be willing to fight for their own and thus everyone's freedom.

It is citizens and journalists, as citizens, that have the responsibility for following truth.  And freedom of public speech, although subject to some limitations, belongs to us all.

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