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June 15, 2005

One Tribe in Press Nation: PressThink Wins an Award

"I find it interesting that I got this news from Reporters Without Borders after my last post questioning whether 'citizen of the world' is a valid ID for an American journalist in Iraq. Aren't reporters without borders citizens of the world?..." My acceptance notes.

PressThink, I learned today, won its first ever award: the Reporters Without Borders Freedom Blog Award for sites “defending freedom of expression.” It was an international contest, and Web users (anyone who wanted to vote and had a valid address) were the choosers. PressThink won for “the Americas.” I don’t know how many there were, but thanks to all who voted and to Reporters sans frontières for the nomination (we were one of 60.) Here’s the announcement page and a BBC story.

It’s a serious honor to share that page with Shared Pains, which is a blog from Afghanistan in Persian, with Al Jinane, written in French by a Moroccan, with ICTlex, which is like an Italian Lessig, with, or Net Politics in German, and especially with Mojtaba Saminejad of Iran (whose story of imprisonment is told here and here) and Screenshots…by Jeff Ooi (see Dan Gillmor on Ooi’s struggle with the thought police in Malaysia.) For them, international recognition is vital, possibly a matter of life and death. They have hostile regimes to deal with. I have Howard Kurtz. Web voters and Reporters Sans Frontières did a great thing, an important thing by recognizing Mojtaba Saminejad and Jeff Ooi.

I find it interesting that I got this news from Reporters Without Borders after my last post questioning whether “citizen of the world” is a valid ID for an American journalist in Iraq. Aren’t reporters without borders citizens of the world? The questions rise anew: in journalism is there a craft identity not based in the category of nation, and are there universals in a practice like reporting the news?

The press conference, the credential around the neck, the need for quotes, the anonymous source, the official handout that doesn’t have the story but you grab it, the one best camera and mike position, the reporter’s notebook, the deadline, the Q and A with politician, the bland spokesman, the uncooperative official, the dreaded police, the conflict between correspondent in the field and desk at home: these may be universal. More or less.

It is certain that there is solidarity among journalists across countries. That’s what Reporters sans frontières, the Committee to Protect Journalists, and International Freedom of Expression Exchange (but also Editorsweblog) are all about. Threats to a free press are similar everywhere. The knock at the door: the same.

We know that the right to gather and publish the news, and then comment on it, without fear of arrest or harassment, is not universally established. But if it is valid everywhere this creates a universal principle, similar to the better known principles of human rights. Even though there is no world body that can establish the right to operate a free press, the body of people who believe in that right exists worldwide. The state of their union counts for something. In that sense—global solidarity around a principal right of mankind—a trans-national identity is a real and necessary thing in journalism. Not to mention blogging.

I could have mentioned some of this in doubting Bob Franken’s construct, “When I’m reporting, I am a citizen of the world.” Instead, I am saying it now.

But there is another sense in which we need a journalism without borders, also known to the people at Reporters sans frontières, whose awards recognize no firm boundary between the press and the bloggers worldwide. This is a press organization giving awards to bloggers. That’s because bloggers are the press for purposes of extending in political space the freedom to publish news and commentary. In my paper for Harvard’s Berkman Center, Bloggers vs. Journalists is Over, I made note of this:

With blogging, an awkward term, we designate a fairly beautiful thing: the extension to many more people of a First Amendment franchise, the right to publish your thoughts to the world. Wherever blogging spreads the dramas of free expression follow… A blog, you see, is a little First Amendment machine.

I tried to sum it up by adding a coda to A.J. Liebling’s famous remark: “Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one, and blogging means practically anyone can own one.” And I believe that is still the case— in principle. But freedom to have a weblog that speaks freely goes country-by-country as a matter of political fact.

The wonder of it all can be over stated. And if you’re suspicious of the romance in citizen journalism, I really cannot blame you. But let’s not under-state the part that is real: increasingly journalists have to share title to the press, and deal with a new class of producers online. We might put it this way: Professional journalists are one tribe in Press Nation, and there are others.

It seems to me that the RSF Freedom Blog Awards are about that. The awards are a recognition ceremony across groups that see in the atavistic state a common enemy. Alas, only in nation states does press freedom—for bloggers and journalists—become real. We “owe” the nation our understanding of that.

The people of the Pulitzers and the Dupont Awards are one tribe in press nation. PressThink says it takes more than one to make for a truly free press these days. Does that make this a “freedom of expression” blog any more than the next fellow blogging? Probably not. Still, I accept. (With acknowledgments to the other finalists in “the Americas” category: Dan Gillmor and Politech, each a free expression.)

I said professional journalists were one tribe, bloggers are kind of another. It seems one purpose of PressThink is to stay between the two with ideas, questions and proposals. Here’s one for my colleagues and friends in the Media Bloggers Association. Maybe next year we should give out our awards to the Big Journalism people with the most generous and expansive understanding of a free press.

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

Jeff Ooi at Screenshots… “I sincerely thank you for your votes of endorsement, not for me, but to uphold the freedom of speech in the little sphere that we have.”

Blogs to the rescue: Tom Watson and others have taken up the cause of the Pakistani anti-rape activist Mukhtaran Bibi, a remarkable and courageous woman detained by the authorities. Read about her in Nick Kristof’s column.

Jeff Jarvis returns from a confab with journalists and academics: “I sometimes hear a defeatism in journalism today — mixed with anger and defiance.”

Our new world of weblogs and citizens’ media is all about possibilities — many of them unrealized, I grant — while the world of the big, old media is increasingly about worry: fretting over declining revenue, resources, audience, quality, trust. That is one good reason for big media to embrace the small, rather than trying to recapture the old: It’s optimistic, energetic, new, open, growing, and fun; it’s the medium in the better mood and that’s catching. In short: Bloggers make better barmates.

Jarvis also notes that the BBC has posted a comprehensive and free course in shooting video. “By teaching those who care to learn, the BBC is building an army of news-gatherers in the world. One of them could be there when the huge story happens. One of them will be inspired to go out and report a story. And that video will end up on the air — on the BBC or on the internet or elsewhere — and we’re all better informed.”

Maureen Dowd made her name with this method of analysis. Baristanet: The High School Model of Media Heirarchy.

There were over 2,000 credentialed media here in Santa Maria covering the trial, and as with high school, there was a definite pecking order. All the cliques were represented: the hotties, smart people, rebels and burnouts. Like high school, everyone was keenly aware of where they stood on the social ladder, and spent most of their time obsessing over it. Here’s a handy guide (which you can clip and use for future celebrity trials):

Network TV Anchors = Football Quarterback / Head Cheerleader
This is the absolute top of the social pyramid. They have huge entourages who form a protective circle at all times. Everyone laughs at their jokes, and they’re never even seen at Cafe Diem (the trial’s equivalent of the cafeteria). Even the police and court staff are impressed with them and let them go places they’re not supposed to go. (Kinda like a geeky science teacher who can’t bring himself to fail that hot cheerleader, because even he is excited that she knows his name). Stone Phillips from Dateline NBC is one of them. He has the thickest hair of any human living or dead.

The rest is sharp and funny. It goes all the way through the tribe down to the bottom. Read.

Steve Outing of Poynter, The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism: “A resource guide to help you figure out how to put this industry trend to work for you and your newsroom.” Outing starts with the simplest and easiest steps (“Opening up to public comment”) and works through to the most advanced, like “Wiki journalism: Where the readers are editors.”

My suggestion for the name of National Review’s new media blog was Right Justified. Doc Searls said he loved it, and said NR founder William F. Buckley would too. Now I learned that Right Justified has made the finals. I’m rooting for it, but I still think they will go with something blander like “Press Gallery.” (Village Voice uses the equally bland “Press Clips.”)

To me this is all vaguely amusing. The bravely ideological lions become lambs when they have to approach the press with a political idea. So they pick safe meaningless centrist newspapery titles— the opposite of their self-image. Press Clips. Press Gallery. Press Conference is author Stephen Spruiell’s fave… okay: how about Press This?

We’re in the ex-ex-cathedra editorial page era at the Los Angeles Times: Wherein the boss of the opinion pages, Michael Kinsley, brings them down from the mountaintop. Things took a new turn this week, as noted by Kevin Roderick at LA Observed. The editorial page dropped all discussion of issues and events (for one day) and each editorial writer told LA Times readers how that writer commutes to work.

Now that’s coming down to the street from the cathedral, almost literally. Thus the ex-ex-cathedra era in Kinsley’s domain. I like Kevin Roderick’s headline: They drive, they ride, etc. Here a post with all his coverage of changes Kinsley and deputy Andrés Martinez have made.

Heather Green, Business Week blogger, and Jeff Jarvis point to this statement from Floyd Abrams, the attorney defending Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper in their refusal to name confidential sources. From the PBS Newshour:

TERENCE SMITH: Well, what about a blogger, Floyd Abrams?

FLOYD ABRAMS: I was asked that today, and I said as I say here, I think a blogger ought to be protected also. It seems to me that the purpose of this privilege is to protect the people who play a function in American life.

It’s not to protect reporters as such. It’s to protect people who gather information and disseminate it on a widespread basis to the public. So I think eventually if there is a privilege, and that’s one of the things the court’s going to deal with, but if there is a privilege here, whether it’s rooted in the First Amendment or what’s called federal common law, I think it should apply to bloggers as well.

His notion that the people who play a function in American life deserve protection is dead on. His description of what that “job” is (gathering & disseminating public information) is neutral between tribes. It’s the people who do the job that journalism is supposed to do, says the First Amendment attorney-of-record for the New York Times. Not the people who have the job title: journalist.

Thus, instead of protecting journalists as a class we protect the right to play the journalist’s part in public life, which “anyone” might need at one time or another. I find that a more attractive legal doctrine. Closer to reality. Wiser politically. And it creates common ground.

Posted by Jay Rosen at June 15, 2005 9:09 PM