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Bloggers and journalism

Much has been written about the New Journalism; that somewhat revolutionary way of publishing that boggles the minds of many newspapermen and cheers the fanboys to no end. I don't profess to be Dan Gillmore (or, for that matter, any of the people who rank in the Technorati), but I was a journalism-type person at one time and earned recognition as a writer at one time (now, long past, I'm sad to say).

This issue, is a blogger a journalist, has taken on a life of its own. The debate has centered not around when to abide the same protections given a journalist to a blogger, but when to deny a bloggers ability to publish what would be acceptable-or, not to put to fine a point on it, required-of a journalist.

The examples are piling up everyday. Dan Rather. The Kerry Vietnam films. The Bush Vietnam record. Ken Jennings. The damage being done to the 1st Amendment is beginning, and the freedom of the press, that esteemed fourth estate, is next in the sites of the sharks.

But is every blogger a journalist? Of course not, and anyone who implies otherwise either has an agenda or is an idiot. Want proof? Surf any random page on LiveJournal. Nothing against the people who live and breathe the community that is LiveJournal, but it's not exactly the Times. If any random user posts something to their blog, are they automatically entitled to the protections, both legal and social, that any credentialed journalist is entitled to? I don't believe so. Many would agree, some would not.

But there's no getting around one thing. Libel is a real threat and one little understood. Bloggers may be the pajama mujahadeen, but they aren't well represented by their lowest common denominator.

And therein lies the problem. While journalists on the whole share a common trait (the attempt at factual reporting) they also have drawn a line-both in the legal arena and in the public eye-of where a real journalist starts and where they end as well. No one believes Weekly World News when they print something like "Aliens Claim Jacko is Their Son: And They Want Him Back!" But they do believe CBS when they report that the incumbent President lied about his service record. CBS is also protected from libel because they *cough* honestly *cough* believed that the report they aired was true.

CBS took a beating because they are a major, reliable, constant source of hard news. And they have been for decades. WWN doesn't get that same truck with the public because, well, they're a rag. This line, this difference, is evident. Now, I picked extreme examples, but the fundamental point is the same: not all newspaper writers are journalists. So too, not all bloggers are journalists, or should be accorded the protections inherit in being a journalist.

So, really, what we have is a problem outside of the argument of what protections bloggers should have. We have a problem defining who gets that protection. I have few answers to my own question and, honestly, I would prefer to draw that line pretty low. Too high and people like me get left out on our own.

I have the creeping suspicion that the answer is not a good one, that it lies somewhere in the realm of the answer to "How do you identify art?" You just know art when you see it.

Applying the same test to bloggers and protection is a problem. Is Jason Kottke a journalist? Not in the traditional sense. But when he broke the Ken Jennings story (identifying when Jennings would loose on Jeopardy!), he certainly entered that realm, reporting current events in a timely, relevant, appropriate manner. In fact, he did it so well, he got legal attention from Sony, who owns the Jeopardy! franchise. But, interestingly enough, the Washington Post, who ran with the same story, didn't. Many have speculated that this was a symptom of picking on the source with no funds for a defense. While that's an obvious play for the legal team at Sony, I suspect a part of the decision to lay into Jason was that no lawyer at Sony had the first clue who Jason Kottke was. Hence, he was an easy target because he didn't have "LLC" tacked to his website.

I don't believe there are easy answers to this debate. In fact, I think it's going to take something fundamental, something at the Supreme Court level, to honestly and finally decide that online publishing is protected. That's a scary thing to say because really, at the base level, everything said here on this blog, or on any blog for that matter, automatically fall under the protection of the 1st Amendment. But really, as Mr. Kottke illustrates, they don't. There is a fuzzy area, one that creeps wider every year, that envelopes publishers on many fronts. Too many laws now contradict each other; laws that were never designed to deal with a world completely connected. A world that transmits a fact around the world, back again, and relegates that fact to yesterday's news in a matter of hours.

I hope the answer is settled soon. I hope the web really does transform the world. It won't be Utopia because Utopia is a construct. But the future reality, for the first time in a long time, can be better than that which spawned it. But that's only if we find our way to talk about it.


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