Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

My two cents on cameras in the courtroom

Posted: Wednesday, October 6, 2010 at 6:27 pm
By: Tim Gebhart
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With the South Dakota Supreme Court holding a hearing Thursday morning to assess rule changes that would allow cameras in state court courtrooms, I can see both sides. After all, I was a “cops and courts” reporter (although in the print media) before becoming a lawyer and venturing into the courtroom.

I don’t plan on reviewing in any detail the suggestions from the committee that studied the issue. Suffice it to say a majority of the committee recommended access only where all the parties agree while a minority, largely the media representatives, recommended access be presumed unless the judge found good cause otherwise. The two proposals differ in other respects but are alike in others. Neither, though, incorporates some of my pipe dreams.

First, the television stations (or their parent networks or the like) should pay all or most of the cost of installing fixed cameras in the courtrooms in which they request to broadcast a trial. I know that might be expensive but by doing it on a courtroom by courtroom basis when necessary, it is less economically burdensome. Moreover, fixed cameras are less distracting and having the media install them won’t impact an already stretched judiciary budget.

Second, to avoid the public getting only sound bites, the stations participating and the state would arrange that all parts of the trial that can be recorded be fully broadcast on a local public access channel. I don’t care if it’s a live broadcast but, at a minimum, there should be a full showing during evening hours when more people are likely able to watch. That way, if it wishes, the public has access to everything, not what someone else thinks important. (Along those same lines, I’ve long believed all South Dakota Supreme Court arguments should be rebroadcast on public television or public access channels in their entirety.)

The last element is that there be a quid pro quo for each trial the media wants to broadcast. I haven’t quite figured out the logistics, but for each murder case or whatever that strikes the media’s fancy, it will also have to air, in its entirety, another trial on the public access channel it didn’t decide to cover. In other words, for each “sexy” trial that gets air time, a breach of contract, declaratory judgment action or car accident jury or court trial would also be broadcast. I think consent of the parties is necessary here because only they or their attorneys know whether private information will come up. Yet this would at least give the public the opportunity to see a more balanced picture of what the courts actually do.

So there’s my two cents — and it’s worth less than that. But don’t get me started on my dream that “None of the Above” must be on the ballot for every elected office, contested or not.

FTC to help “the reinvention of journalism”?

Posted: Tuesday, June 15, 2010 at 11:38 am
By: Tim Gebhart
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No one disputes the impact the digital age has had on journalism, particularly newspapers, so there’s a variety of ideas floating around to keep newspapers alive. The Federal Trade Commission’s staff just released a draft discussion report as a result of the FTC saying last year that it wanted to consider the challenges faced by journalism.

The FTC points out that the report, titled “Potential Policy Recommendations to Support the Reinvention of Journalism in the Internet Age,” is not made up of its proposals but, rather, is a collection of suggestions from a series of workshops it hosted and from reports and articles about the future of journalism. There are some interesting concepts. Here’s a few:

  • Limiting the “fair use” doctrine to address issues posed by news aggregators and search engines.
  • Amending the Copyright Act to create “hot news” protection. While you can’t copyright facts, this doctrine recognizes some quasi-property interest in the value of having the news first, before there is widespread public dissemination.
  • Establish a “journalism” division of AmeriCorps to help “ensure that young people who love journalism will stay in the field.”
  • Collecting fees from telecom users, broadcast licensees or ISPs to create a national fund for local news.
  • Creating “citizenship news vouchers, which would allow taxpayers to allocate some amount of government funds to the non-profit media organization of their choice.
  • In conjunction with the latter, using a non-profit model for new organizations or explore other types of business structures. (A bill that would allow newspapers to qualify as nonprofit entities was introduced in the U.S. Senate in March 2009 and still sits in committee.)

These are just a few of the ideas discussed to one degree or another in the report. As a former newspaper reporter and a readere, I want newspapers and print magazines to survive. At the same time, I am more than a bit leery of government being involved with the funding or structure of news organizations. Just like with churches, I think we are all better served by separation of state and news media.

Still, the only way for newspapers to survive is to explore, discuss and debate a wide range of ideas. Or perhaps I’m just a Luddite unwilling to recognize that the dead tree-based form of journalism will inevitably disappear. If that’s the case, it looks like the FTC is in the same boat.

The Press Is Us

Posted: Sunday, May 9, 2010 at 8:21 am
By: Cory Allen Heidelberger
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Before the 2011 Legislature takes another swing at the Blog Control Acts, they’ll want to review the latest ruling from the New Hampshire Supreme Court, which agrees with me and Aaron Barlow that freedom of the press applies to blogs and websites just as well as the traditional press:

In a First Amendment case that had big implications for the future of online journalism, the New Hampshire Supreme Court said freedom of the press is a fundamental right that extends beyond newspapers and periodicals to any kind of publication that serves as a vehicle for information and opinion.

For the first time, New Hampshire’s high court set a precedent for deciding whether websites can be forced to release the identity of online commenters. It instructed lower courts to weigh the media’s right to protect sources more heavily than the plaintiff’s concerns in lawsuits over defamatory comments made online. Similar precedents have been set in other states [Ashley Smith, “Court Backs Website on Free Speech,” Nashua Telegraph, 2010.05.07].

The ruling addresses a case that covers exactly the situation South Dakota’s legislators wanted to regulate: a pseudonymous blog commenter accused a mortgage company president of fraud, and the company demanded the website identify the commenter. The high court’s ruling does not give nameless commenters free rein, but it does say the mortgage company doesn’t get free rein to prosecute perceived defamation. New Hampshire’s supremes have told the lower court to reconsider the case, this time viewing the website as a member of the press with full First Amendment right to protect the identity of its anonymous sources.

When the Founding Fathers used the word press, they weren’t thinking of professional reporters and publishers pretending to objectivity. They were thinking of pamphleteers and other rabble-rousers like Thomas Paine and Alexander Hamilton who got hold of a press and published their arguments.

If you’re reading this, you have a press at your fingertips. Just like government, the press is us. Use it wisely.

So, what happened to Mrs. Shahzad and the kids?

Posted: Wednesday, May 5, 2010 at 9:41 am
By: David Newquist
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It took only 53 hours for a coordinated investigation from the time a car bomb was discovered at Times Square Saturday night to result in the arrest of its maker and planter.  What has been unusual about this case is that investigators have kept the press informed of developments in the case almost minute-by-minute.

The coverage has been filled with quotations from authorities who provided information on the condition that they remain anonymous because of the ongoing investigation.  The investigators have been unusually accommodating to the press.  Usually, they are very reticent because premature information on what they are doing and finding can impede, often ruin, their efforts.

As information is revealed, the press has also shown the influence of blogs by writing stories that carp, criticize, and adopt an attitude of superior knowledge about the investigation.  And they have not gotten the information right.  Initially, the press said that Faisal Shahzad almost got away.  The aircraft he was on was leaving on the taxi ramps when it had to be called back, and then authorities arrested him, according to first reports. That turned out not to be true.  It finally came out that that the door to the aircraft had been shut, but it had not left the gate.  The airline had not downloaded the latest no-fly list, but federal authorities ran the passenger manifest and saw that Shahzad had boarded the aircraft.  The press has emphasized what it calls lapses, rather than how redundancy provisions worked in an amazing investigation.

While the press was carping about the alleged failures of the government agencies, it left another question unanswered.  It noted that Shahzad had a wife and two children, but made no mention at all if they were involved in the bomb plot or what the state of their relationship to Faisal was.  It turns out that Mrs. Shahzad is a Coloradan who graduated from the university in Boulder.  Apparently, the only assignment desk that thought that the status of the family might be worth a mention was a television station in Denver which had reporters do some investigating and came up with information on a Facebook page. Mrs. Shahzad is in Pakistan and their embassy officials have said they intend to protect her and the children from the negative publicity surrounding the  case.  That is fair, as long as she is not implicated in the bomb plot, as her father is said to be according to news reports.

In any case, the media is showing the habits of bloggers by publishing rumors and misunderstandings before checking the information and verifying it for accuracy.  It is kind of like butchers criticizing the work of brain surgeons.  The legacy media is struggling to compete with the new media, but they are doing so at the expense of their credibility.  Leave the stupidity, rumor-mongering, and petty carping to the bloggers.  We need journalists and accurate information, not displays of deranged egotism.

Beck’s Reporters Love Truth… So Get on These Stories!

Posted: Monday, March 15, 2010 at 1:48 pm
By: Cory Allen Heidelberger
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(Mr. Gebhart and I are both thinking about newspapers today.)

Randell Beck, publisher of that Sioux falls paper, celebrates Sunshine Week with a celebration of newspaper reporters:

In an era increasingly shaped by ideological trench warfare – a media-saturated world in which folks are lured to consume prepackaged news mirroring their own narrow worldview – the very best reporters challenge authority, ask the hardest questions, challenge conventional thinking and hold accountable those who presume to speak for all of us – all with a relentless fidelity to the truth, “without fear or favor” [Randell Beck, “The Best Reporters Pursue Truth,” that Sioux Falls paper, 2010.03.14].

Like Beck, I am grateful for reporters. The paid media do a lot of investigative work that even the most passioante among us bloggers cannot afford to do on a regular basis. It’s their job to be watchdogs over government and industry for the rest of us who are busy working other jobs all week long.

In that spirit, I hope Mr. Beck will dispatch his reporters to find some truth about the following stories that have yet to get much attention from the newspapers:

  • Rick Millner’s state-supported Veblen East Dairy has been cited for violating DENR regulations. The dairy, now in receivership, appears to follow the same pattern of financial woe and willful environmental disregard that characterize other Millner business ventures. Just what is going on in Veblen, and why has the state offered so much support to this particular mega-CAFO?
  • Last October, Senator Thune voted against an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that prohibits private defense contractors from preventing employees from taking cases of workplace sexual assault, battery, and discrimination to court. Thune’s hometown media in Sioux Falls have yet to hold the Senator to a serious accounting on that vote. (I welcome examples to the contrary.)
  • Beck touts some up-and-coming journalism scholarship winners, saying “we’ve got some pretty strong future reporters in the pipeline.” But they’ve had darn few reporters on the pipeline—the Keystone pipeline, that is. The biggest construction project in the country plowed through South Dakota last summer, tearing up roads and farm fields. Where were the newspaper reports about the disruption and grief caused to our local farmers?
  • Beck shares my thirst for transparency in government. Locally, however, Madison has an economic development corporation, the LAIC, that operates in near complete secrecy. The city and county dump tax dollars into the LAIC, and the public never receives a detailed accounting of how that money is spent. The LAIC keeps a lid on useful information that should be public by charging exorbitant fees for access. Our local newspaper gives the LAIC nothing but the “rainbows and sunshine” one of Beck’s scholarship winners derides.

My fellow bloggers and I can likely offer more examples… but we’ve got to head off to our paying jobs.

p.s.: Beck makes a big deal about how reporters and editors refuse to align with any philosophy and keep their opinions out of their work. Again, Beck peddles the harmful myth of journalistic objectivity. He himself enunciates a clear (and admirable!) philosophy that motivates the best journalists: challenge authority and conventional thinking, hold the powerful accountable, seek truth… sorry, Randell, that’s a philosophy. We do better to wear our philosophies on our sleeves than to pretend we don’t have them.

Beck also invokes God twice in this one editorial. That’s philosophy, too.

Newspapers aren’t reaching the front porch

Posted: Monday, March 15, 2010 at 10:02 am
By: Tim Gebhart
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The Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism today released its seventh annual report on The State of the News Media. While it covers all variety of media, it certainly bears out the concerns about my old stomping ground — newspapers. (I’m old enough to remember the transition from typewriters to word processors in the newsroom.) Here’s the metaphor the report uses for newspapers: people who deliver the newspaper “are complaining that the Monday edition doesn’t have enough throw-weight to get all the way up the porch.”

The local daily certainly bears that out. A significant problem, of course, is revenues, an area in which newspapers are not the only ones suffering. The study indicates that newspaper ad revenue fell 26% during 2009, bringing the total loss over the last three years to 43%. Both radio and local television ad revenue fell 22% last year, magazine ad revenue dropped 17% and network TV 8% (and news alone probably more). But the real kicker for newspapers is that the study estimates the industry has lost $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity since 2000, or roughly 30%.

In 2009 alone, an estimated 5,900 full-time newspaper jobs were shed, numbers similar to 2008. That means roughly one-third of newsroom jobs in American newspapers that existed in 2001 are gone, with the cuts coming in significant part from specialty beats like science, the arts, suburban government and statehouse coverage. These figures threaten an outcome that may make throw-weight concerns irrelevant: newspapers “are flirting with a tipping point where the cutbacks are so great that even loyal audiences give up.”

Across the media board, some of the damage may well be self-inflicted. Attributable in part to cable television and radio, the executive summary observes that 71% of Americans believe most news sources are biased and 70% feel overwhelmed rather than informed by the amount of news and information they see. “Quantitatively,” the study notes, “argument rather than expanding information is the growing share of media people are exposed to today.”

To me, that is more disconcerting than throw-weight: fewer outlets elevating argument over information and objectivity. Combine it all and it’s not a good formula for a marketplace of ideas.

Life, liberty, and pursuit of defamation

Posted: Sunday, February 21, 2010 at 4:06 pm
By: David Newquist
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The bills before the State Legislature to provide for access to the identities of  anonymous blog commenters by court order if the comments are involved in legal actions will have their committee hearings early Monday morning.  These bills have managed to tie galling granny knots in the blogging community’s thongwear. 

 In questioning the rationale behind the opposition to these amendments to the South Dakota defamation law,  called by Cory Heidelberger and other bloggers the Blog Control Act, I am trying to understand how the astounding inequalities of justice under the current state of defamation law are justified.  The proposed bills before the legislature appear to be an attempt to equalize the application of law. 

First, please note that I have  not endorsed the proposed legislation.  I have assumed that if the bills present impracticalities and burdens, those things can be addressed in committee hearings and during legislative floor debate.  And then the bills’ sponsors can reply with what their motivations and objectives are for the bills.  My original post on the Defamation Law amendments stressed the point that the concept of free speech involved in protecting the anonymous is in direct conflict with that which states that people possess the right not to be defamed and that free-speakers can be held responsible for their abuse of free speech.  I suggested that if such rights and accountability do not in fact exist–which they do not in some circumstances–then eliminate this fraudulent posturing in the State constitution and in the legal code.  Don’t pass these bills, but amend the state laws to state the actual rights and remedies people have concerning defamation.    Which, practically speaking, are none. 

If Internet media are not subject to the laws of defamation, why should the established news media be?  Any newspaper which would publish an anonymous letter-to-the-editor which defames someone can be held liable.  Under the Decency in Communications Act,  internet media are declared immune, if someone posts a defamatory anonymous comment.    The argument is made that the new media is fast and puts the printing press back in the hands of  the people, which somehow exempts it from responsibilities regarding the rights of other people.   That leaves  the question of why the people should not have to obey the law but the legacy media must.

The State Constitution affirms freedom of speech with the only caveat that those who abuse that freedom are responsible.  The state law prefaces the slander and libel sections with the statement that “Every person is obligated to refrain from infringing upon the right of others not to be defamed.”

And some bloggers are lining up to declare, “It’s not my job.”  Recent case law and Supreme Court rulings tend toward the side of the bloggers.  The growing sentiment is that free speech is stifled when encumbered with concerns about defamation.   The notion that providing redress for defamation is a direct assault on the First Amendment is one of those non compos mentis gems that is possible to state only in our age of pandemic dementia. 

In the matter of defamation, the current state law is a meaningless sham.  It professes a stance toward decency and suggests remedies for wrongs that do not, in fact, exist.  The defamation laws as they stand are equivalent to putting a fire exit sign over the image of a door painted on the concrete wall of a movie theater.  If a real emergency arises and people pile up trying to exit through an immovable section of wall…well, tough shit.   The door was painted on the wall to create the appearance of a concern for safety.  No one ever intended it to serve the function announced for it.  South Dakota defamation law, and the case law which defines it, is  a model of  that kind of dysfunction.

The nation is making a fuss about the fact that American students seem to lag behind other nations in their grasp of science and math.  There seems to be little notice that Americans are for the most part illiterate in the principles of rhetoric.   In a high school composition course, we students were drilled on the logical fallacies in rhetoric.  Special stress was put on the ad hominem fallacy, which attacks the person rather than the idea the person has put forth.  These principles were reinforced in college freshman rhetoric courses.  If a student used an ad hominem attack, the paper containing it was severely downgraded, if not failed.  The ad hominem, however, was not the only logical fallacy of which we were taught to be wary, but it was considered the most serious offense because it might involve a false accusation against someone’s reputation.  Any attack on character and personality required evidence and proof, or it was considered defamation.  That concept of rhetorical literacy has been lost in the fuming caldron of neo-partisan politics.  The Internet is a pasticcio of malicious doltishness.  And that malice often verges over into outright defamation.

When people state their opinions and prejudices as matters of fact, they often move over the line into personal defamation.  Actually, in the case of bloggers, the signed bloggers commit defamation as often as their anonymous commenters.  The reason they get away with it is because legal action is so costly and time-consuming and the laws, as stated above, do not actually provide any means of redress.  The original rules for libel were comparatively straightforward.  If you said something that damaged a person’s reputation, you could be challenged to prove it.  If it was a factual truth, you could say it and not be regarded as commiting slander or libel.  However, if what you said was not factually true, you would have to pay damages.  And anything that was said which was untrue or said without regard to whether it was true was considered malicious in intent and automatically was presumed to have inflicted damage.  Being held responsible for what was said did, indeed, make people cautious about what they said.  Responsibility certainly had a chilling effect on free speech if what what one was about to speak was defamatory without substantive justification.

The bills before the South Dakota legislature may need some sharpening and revision, but they represent the first time in a long time that the legislature is trying to enable some equality of justice which promotes decency in political dialogue.

A premise behind the establishment of media that offer reporting and opinion for public consumption is that the freedom to publish entails a commensurate responsibility  for what is published.  That means that those who exercise editorial control of any medium will be held liable for anything unfairly or falsely damaging that appears in the forum they control.   If someone does not want to assume that responsibility, then that person should probably not attempt such an enterprise.  And as for anonymous comments, there are a myriad of ways available and practiced by many to deal with anonymous comments.  Bloggers are better advised to monitor their own witless sniping and be willing to assume responsibility for the malice, falsehoods, and damage they perpetrate on their own.

A major source of dysfunction is that the laws are being shaped to fit the new media, rather than the new media being shaped to fit the law and the responsibilities of free speech.  The problem could be resolved by restoring the established definition and means of redress for defamation.  Nothing could raise the level of discourse on the Internet as effectively as making posters responsible to prove the truth of their factual statements and holding them liable for reasonale, enforceable damages.  And newspapers and broadcast organizationsm, as well as bloggers,  would have to assume responsibility for the comments posted on their Internet sites.

In other words, make the current Constitutional and legal provisions operative through enabling legislation.  Put simply,  hold people responsible for what they say or what is said under their auspices. 

Bloggers do, indeed, represent the more earthy voice of the people.  The dysfunction that people complain about in government is demonstrated daily, hourly, on the blogosphere.  The people get what they vote for and what they are.  Whatever happens to the anti-defamation bills, I am confident they will be rendered absurd by the dysfunction to which our elected representatives cater. 

In a time when people can accuse the President being simultaneously a subverter of the Constitution, a fascist, a communist, a socialist, a Muslim, an illegal alien, and whatever perjoratives their somnolent little brain cells can dredge up,  I don’t think there is much interest in equal justice under the law.

An identity crisis

Posted: Sunday, February 7, 2010 at 11:41 pm
By: David Newquist
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I do not know if the proposed amendments and additions to South Dakota’s defamation laws are good legislation or not, at this point.  (HB 1277 and HB 1278.)  The bills have just been introduced with a first reading in the state legislature and have not gone through the committee hearings and any of the legislative process (sausage-making, if you can stand to read that cliche one more time) during which the sponsors explain their rationale and legislators get a chance to refine, approve, or reject them.

The obvious point of these bills is to give people who have been defamed a means of  recourse.  And the right not to be defamed is cited as a basic right in all state codes of rights and personal responsibilities. Protesters  of this proposed legislation are claiming that these laws are an infringement of First Amendment rights.  They seem unable or unwilling to consider that some First Amendment rights are in conflict with basic, unalienable human rights, and that any person or organization that presumes to publish or broadcast for public consumption has obligations to protect rights as well as the freedom to exercise them.

As defamation law exists now in relation to legacy media, legal action can be taken against the entity whose publication or broadcasts contain defamatory materials.  When defamation actions are taken, the publishing medium is included in the lawsuit.  If the originators of the defamatory statements are known, they will be included, too, but legal precedent places the onus on the publisher of the comments.

Bloggers are protesting the proposed legislation on the grounds that it would force them to snitch on anonymous commenters.  The legislation is attempting to supply a means whereby the originators of defamatory material can be identified and included in any lawsuits.  The legislation might be improved by stating that Internet media, such as blogs, is subject to the same laws of publication as the legacy media is. It might further be strengthened by  specifying that the collection of damages can be under the same provisions for restitution and compensation   that are used in cases of accidents caused by negligence and disregard and damage caused by vandalism, juveniles included.    Those found guilty of defamation would be allowed to make restitution and reparations through monthly   payments through the court.  Under these provisions, bloggers would not have to worry about supplying means of identification of commenters.  They would have to be concerned about what is said on the web pages and blogs over which they have control.  Such provisions would include discussion boards and comment threads operated by the legacy media, who also seem to think that the interactive aspects of internet media exempt them from the rules they follow in their print and broadcast formats.  And many blogs, including mine, already enforce an obvious provision:  they require comments to be signed.

News managing and news writing and editing have been significantly shaped by the need to protect the rights of people by avoiding libel.  Every news style manual has a section on libel and how to write and edit to avoid it.  The Associated Press style book is called The Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual. Bloggers want to be accorded the same status as professional journalists.  Instead of specifying means for courts to order revelation of the identities of blog commenters, the legislation might well extend the provisions of existing media law to internet pages and blogs.

Bloggers want the status but none of the  responsibility borne by the legacy media.  That is incredible.  Incredible nonsense. They define themselves in the court of public opinion as deserving of the protected status that juveniles have in the court of law.

On three blog posts on this proposed legislation, writers have explained why anonymous comments should be protected.  Prof. Ken Blanchard provides a typical rationale:

….there are good reasons for protecting the anonymity of internet interlocutors.  It means that one can post his or her opinion freely without fearing reprisal from those who vehemently disagree or without having to explain oneself to one’s family, or neighbors, or other members of a church.  This is exactly the same reason we go to great lengths to protect the secret ballot.

Dayamn.  The concept behind the First Amendment is to encourage and permit robust dialogue.  With anonymous speech, there is no dialogue.  A verbal missile is thrown and there is no one there to throw it back to or hold accountable.  And anonymous speech frustrates that part of the State Constitution, which appears in other state constitutions, too:  Every person may freely speak, write and publish on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right. If anonymous speech is protected, to whom will the anonymous speakers be accountable?

The idea that holding people accountable for their words chills open discussion is nonsense.  It destroys open discussion.  The First Amendment was not conceived as a protection of cowardice and insidiousness.  Those speakers who fear responses to their words and wish to throw missiles and cower behind a mangled First Amendment,  we cite another cliche: if you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.  Or in the language of the blogosphere, if you can’t accept responsibility for your words, just STFU.  Communication involves a message from a sender to a receiver and back again.  An interpretation of the First Amendment that protects anonymous speech is n interpretation that subverts the whole idea of robust dialogue.

The First Amendment is under attack.  Not by those who wish to suppress free speech, but by those who want to abuse and pervert it.  This week a case is going to the Supreme Court which contends that lying is a form of free speech that is protected by the First Amendment.  The case involves men who fraudulently claimed and wore military medals for heroism.  Another case involves a nurse who wrote an anonymous letter to a medical board citing a doctor for malpractice. The nurse was revealed when a sheriff confiscated her hospital computer and found the message on it.

The idea that any provisions that  provide integrity  and accountability to free speech chills it is one that, if enforced, can only degrade the language and render it useless.  But the Internet has brought us to an age of insidious scurrility and cowardice.  The old song lyric is being changed to “Land of free speech and home of the coward.”  And as the language fails, so goes the nation.

Beware the book review cyberslums

Posted: Thursday, January 14, 2010 at 4:21 pm
By: Tim Gebhart
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For those who don’t know, my personal blog tends to focus on books, reading and book reviews. Thus, you would think I would automatically hail the advent of a new interweb book review site, especially one created by a well-respected national magazine. But I can’t say The New Republic did much to entice me when it announced its new online book review, The Book.

In an online letter to “Friends of Books and Writers,” executive editor Isaac Chotiner tells readers that the site is a supplement to the magazine’s print material. Why is TNR adding such a supplement? In part because of “the absence of any site for the serious consideration of serious books is also a fact of the web.” Now it doesn’t really bother me that much if, for whatever reason, TNR doesn’t think I seriously consider serious books. But evidently Mr. Chotiner has never heard of sites such as the 10-year-old the complete review, my friends at Words Without Borders or even the more recent Barnes & Noble Review.

Yet that isn’t what really bothers me. Rather, it’s this portion of his letter: “We are not slumming here, or surrendering to the carnival of the web. Quite the contrary. We are hoping to offer an example of resistance to it. … Here you will find criticism, not blogging; pieces, not posts.” Nor does Mr. Chotiner appear to be the only one at The Book with such view. In an October introductory letter sent by email, the TNR‘s literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, announced that the site’s reviews “will not be blog posts. Again: They will not be blog posts.”

So, we have a twist on the longstanding print v. “lit blogs” discussion. A print outlet launches a lit blog but, of course, because of who and what it is, it isn’t really a lit blog. It has serious material and is inherently superior. After all, even if I review the same books, I do not do criticism, I “blog.” I don’t write reviews, I write “posts.” Because of those distinctions, anyone who reads a review on my blog is “slumming, or surrendering to the carnival of the web.”

Now I realize my lit crit skills pale in comparison to Messrs. Chotiner and Wieseltier or many of the contributors to TNR. I have frequently called myself an “illiterati.” I also realize things aren’t always all that serious around my blog. But thank goodness the status of book bloggers has been confirmed by the powers that be. Thank goodness TNR will “offer an example of resistance” to what I and others do. Thank goodness it will rescue readers from tawdry book bloggers.

Don’t get me wrong. I agree that the demise of dedicated print book reviews means we need and should welcome additional online book reviews. The more the merrier (although I’d have hoped TNR didn’t have such preconceived notions about the subhuman status of book bloggers). I guess all I can really hope is that The Book doesn’t plan on destroying the slums in order to save them.

Bloggers in federal shield law headed to Senate floor

Posted: Tuesday, December 15, 2009 at 9:02 am
By: Tim Gebhart
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Last week, the Senate Judiciary Committee sent to the Senate floor a version of the Free Flow of Information Act that appears to include bloggers.

Briefly stated, a shield law protects journalists from having to disclose sources to prosecutors unless certain requirements are met. One of the battles to date is who would be protected by a federal shield law. At one point, the Senate version of the bill was amended so as to protect only those working for the mainstream media. Last month, the committee adopted language that renders it applicable to certain bloggers. The three part definition of a “covered person” says the bill will apply to anyone who (1) “with the primary intent to investigate events and procure material in order to disseminate” news or other matters of public interest and “regularly” does so, (2) had that intent from the inception of gathering the information and (3) and obtained the information “in order to disseminate it[.]” Although the amendment does not define “regularly,” that is something that could be decided on a case-by-case basis rather than excluding all bloggers.

Last Thursday, by an 11-8 vote the committee defeated an effort by Senate Majority Leader Dianne Feinstein and Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois to return to a mainstream media-type definition. Their proposal would have required a person be acting “for substantial professional gain.” That term, in turn, was defined as a student working for a college publication or an employee, contractor or agent of an entity that disseminated the information through newspaper, nonfiction book, wire service, news agency, magazine, “news website, or other periodical” or television, radio or motion pictures. While “other periodical” was not defined, the other items in that list would seem to indicate blogs would not be considered a periodical.

After rejecting the amendment, the committee adopted the the blogger-friendly bill by a vote of 14-5. In announcing the bill had come out of committee, Sen. Charles Schumer (D.-N.Y.) noted that “it also provides the potential for journalists publishing on blogs to be covered as well.”

When and if the bill will be debated on the Senate floor is anyone’s guess, as is whether it would pass in the current form. Even if it does, the House version of the bill requires that an individual’s work in journalism must account “for a substantial portion of the person’s livelihood or for substantial financial gain[.]” If and when the two versions are ever reconciled, the law would apply only to federal authorities, not state and local ones.