Insisting on Our First Amendment Rights

A Blog Is a Little First Amendment Machine
By Jay Rosen, HuffingtonPost.com. Posted June 5, 2007.

With blogging, an awkward term, we designate a fairly beautiful thing: the extension to many more people of a free press franchise and the right to publish your thoughts to the world.

When in the eighteenth century the press first appeared on the political stage the people on the other end of it were known as the public. Public opinion and the political press arose together. But in the age of the mass media the public got transformed into an audience.

This happened because the mass media were one way, one-to-many, and “read only.” When journalism emerged as a profession it reflected these properties of its underlying platform. But now we have the Web, which is two-way (rather than one) many-to-many (rather than one-to-many) and “read-write” rather than “read only.”

As it moves toward the Web, journalism will have to adjust to these conditions, but a professionalized press is having trouble with the shift because it still thinks of the people on the other end as an audience–an image very deeply ingrained in professional practice.

I’m going to tell you some stories that I think illustrate the disruptive effects that blogging has had, and the democratic potential it represents. But let me say at the outset that, though a blogger myself, I am not a triumphalist about blogging. I do not think that the age of fully democratic media is suddenly upon us because we have this new form. There is a long way to go if we are to make good on its potential.

Now to my five stories, which I offer more as parables, even though they are, of course, true to the facts.

Chris Allbritton: independent war correspondent.

In March of 2003, Chris Allbritton, a former AP and New York Daily News reporter, became what Wired magazine called “the Web’s first independent war correspondent.” He did it by asking readers of his blog to send him to Iraq at their expense. Allbritton raised $14,500 from 342 donors on a simple promise: that he would send back from the war original and honest reporting, free of commercial pressures, pack thinking, and patriotic hype.

He needed a plane ticket to Turkey (where he snuck over the border and found the war), a laptop, a Global Positioning Satellite unit, a rented satellite phone, a digital camera, and enough cash to move around, keep fed, and buy his way out of trouble. While some reporters were embedded with the American military, Allbritton sent himself on assignment. No one gave him permission to be in country.

The Internet did the rest. On March 27, his reporting drew 23,000 users to his site, www.back-to-iraq.com. So here you have a journalist collecting his own mini-public, a few thousand people on the Web. They then send him to report on events of interest to the entire world, via a medium that reaches the entire world.

This is journalism without the media. I leave you to contemplate the implications of that. But it was one of the events that caused me to start my own blog.

Trent Lott Speaks; bloggers listen.

On Dec. 5, 2002, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, leader of the Republican party in the Senate and probably the third most powerful person in Washington at the time, spoke at former Senator Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party on Capital Hill.

“I want to say this about my state,” he said. “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years either.” He was referring to Thurmond’s 1948 third-party campaign for president, which was an explicitly racist campaign. So what was Trent Lott saying in 2002? That a segregationist president would have been good for America in 1948?

There were some reporters present, but they didn’t see much significance in it. Except for one young producer from ABC News, Ed O’Keefe, who managed to get a brief story read on the air at 4:30 am, which in turn led to a small item the next day at ABCNews.com. This in turn gave it to the bloggers, who began discussing what Lott had said, and digging into Strom Thurmond’s 1948 campaign so as to reveal what his comments really meant.

It turned out that bloggers from the left as well as the right were puzzled and disgusted by Lott’s comments, and they continued to discuss them. For three days the story was the talk of the blogosphere while the news cycle moved on to other things. But political reporters were reading the blogs, and by the fourth day they realized…. This was news! The story of what Lott had said re-broke in the major press–five days after it happened–and he began apologizing for it while major political figures reacted. Ten days later he resigned as majority leader; his power was gone.

Here’s the part of the story I want you to focus on: the chances of a television producer from CBS or a style reporter from the Washington Post not knowing enough history to see any import in Trent Lott’s comments were pretty high. But the chances of the interconnected blogosphere not knowing this background were zero. To this day professional journalists do not understand this fact, even though it was one of the things that helped sink Dan Rather when his badly flawed report on President Bush’s National Guard service was attacked (and sunk) by bloggers and their readers.

Read the rest here.

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