net.wars: Are you now, or have you ever been…a journalist?

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 18 March 2005

"Are you a journalist?" telephone receptionists like to ask suspiciously when they catch you phoning a PR person.

Wendy M Grossman

These days, it's a good question.

Last Friday, Apple won a judgement (PDF)  in Santa Clara County Superior Court that allows the company to demand the producers of the Mac blogs  Think SecretApple Insider , and PowerPage  to compel the bloggers to reveal their sources for details about plans for the company's future product line. They're only bloggers, the argument seems to have gone, not real journalists.

Of course, some blogs are written by real journalists, like Dan Gillmor  (formerly of the San Jose Mercury News  and now researching "grassroots journalism"), Andrew Brown  (formerly of the Independent ), or Charles Arthur  (also formerly full-time correspondent of the Independent ).

Equally, you get some people writing for major national media who are quite obviously not now nor ever have been journalists: Stephen GlassJayson Blair . Then there was "Jeff Gannon", a writer for the conservative Web site Talon News, who some weeks back   resigned as a White House correspondent  after bloggers  outed his real name and various bits about his background. The sin that attracted attention: asking questions that could have been written by a Republican spin doctor.

Journalism has a strange history online. In the earliest days, the general belief was that the Net would kill journalism entirely because everyone would have access to all the raw, background material? Then people realised most people do not have time to wade through acres of background material to calculate how much Carly Fiorina's severance pay was. (And, by the way, folks, I'd be happy to mess up a major corporation for a lot less than $21.5 million. Just saying.)

For a while after that - say, seven or so years ago - it was fashionable for mainstream press to blame everything that was wrong with journalism on Matt Drudge. Yes, Drudge disseminates rumours, how could anyone think Drudge more dangerous to journalistic standards than Rupert Murdoch?

When I last wrote about this subject, in June 1999 , blogs weren't really happening yet, and it seemed as likely that online journalism would wind up the sole province of major media companies as that it would come out the way it actually has, with many thousands of people documenting their special subjects in vast detail. Many of those subjects are things the mainstream press should be covering - but aren't, either because they won't allocate the funding and staff or because they don't believe enough people are interested (or, of course, both). Now, the most likely seems that the future will be a mosaic of vast numbers of news sources of varying levels of depth, credibility, and quality, all running ads by Google.

The real key is access. Only so many people can get interviews with Bill Gates or Warren Buffett in a year; only so many people will see information held in private archives; only so many people and questions fit in the White House press briefing room within a given time slot.

To preserve their access, plenty of paid professionals ask soft-ball questions every day of the week when they interview celebrities - royalty, tennis players, top politicians. It surely can't be any surprise if people who are in a lot of demand for interviews pick and choose the interviewers they think will be kindest to them and their points of view. Or if journalists trying to make a living know this and moderate what they say as long as they think they're going to need to come back to that source while still trying to tell the truth. It's a delicate balance.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation  is arguing that the bloggers are entitled to the same protection under the law as other journalists. I think in the end this argument has to be right. If you allow companies to use trade secret law to compel the disclosure of sources you make all types of business reporting much more difficult since companies who don't like what's being reported about them can claim trade secret protection. If you say that bloggers are not journalists except when they're working for "official" news media, then you're coming perilously close to controlling journalism by deciding who is allowed to do it. It is another of those delicate balances.

The problem is that the law the judge is using, the California Shield Law seems to specifically limit its protections to journalists working for traditional news media. You can argue that a blog is equivalent to a wire service, but the significant difference is that there is, often, no organisation behind it and the blogger is simultaneously reporter, editor, and publisher. But there are plenty of newsletters and magazines, online or in print, that function the same way. The EFF has always argued - correctly, I think - that online media should not be more restricted than their print and broadcast brethren.

But. If bloggers are journalists, then everyone's a journalist, right? Depends how many readers you have and how influential they are. It's the law of the jungle, boys.

Wendy knows too many journalists... - You can discuss this article on our discussion board.

Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).