When it comes to free speech, journalists should be activists

Dan Gillmor
Dec 2, 2014 · Unlisted
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No major news organization has done a better job of covering China lately than the New York Times, as attested by its Pulitzer Prize for an investigation into the wealth acquired by leaders’ relatives. China’s response has been, in part, to make life difficult for Times journalists and to avidly censor the journalism — part of the regime’s ongoing and, it appears, escalating blockade of websites and other digital information services.

The writers framed this as a journalism issue: the right of a news organization to report what its journalists believe is the truth. They were also standing up for a wider freedom: people’s ability to get the information they wanted from the sources they chose. Because of China’s policy, both stances were a direct challenge to Beijing’s censorship—and a notable contrast to the way some other western news organizations have behaved.

The Times was making more than a business decision. It was engaging in an overtly political act—and abandoning any pretense of journalistic “objectivity.”

That’s great. And it would be even better news if the organization —if all journalism organizations—applied this kind of logic to some other political and policy issues.

For journalists, there should be no objectivity, no neutrality, about freedom of expression and other key liberties that are at the foundation of self-rule. There should be an open bias toward openness and freedom—and news people who don’t use their reports to push those values are not fit to call themselves journalists.

Powerful governments and corporations are leading the attack against these core values, usually in the guise of protecting us or giving us more convenience. But these powerful entities are also creating a host of choke points. And the result is a locking down of computing and communications: a system of control by others over what we say and do online — a betrayal of the Internet’s decentralized promise.

What are these choke points? The most obvious is what’s happening to the Internet itself. In America and a number of other countries the telecommunications industry — often working with government, and in some cases outright owned by government — is deciding, or insisting on the right to decide, what bits of information get to people’s devices in what order and at what speed, or whether they get there at all. This is what network neutrality is all about in the U.S.: whether we, at the edges of the networks, get to make those decisions or whether telecom companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T will ultimately have that power, as they insist they need. The worries about corporate media consolidation in the 1990s seem quaint next to this kind of consolidation. Free speech? It’ll be as free a Comcast et al want it to be if they get the upper hand.

Surveillance, too, has become a method for government — again, often working with big companies — to keep track of what journalists and activists are doing, well beyond the avowed mission of stopping terrorism and solving crimes.

It is having a measurable chilling effect on freedom of expression, and no society that exists under pervasive surveillance can claim to enjoy basic liberty, because it deadens innovation and culture.

And when the major payment systems — probably acting at the behest of government — all but shut down Wikileaks via a funding blackout, an organization engaged in gathering and disseminating information, did the public understand the threat? Maybe a few people did, but only a few big news organizations noticed, much less complained. The centralized payment industry holds enormous power, by proxy, over our ability to make a living.

In one key respect we’re cooperating with the creators of choke points — by coming to rely on centralized Internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Google. (Google itself made a principled, Times-like decision when it all but pulled out of China in the wake of continuing interference with its operations there.) Do journalists understand that the Internet is getting new editors, namely the people who work for those companies? It’s finally dawned on the news industry that the increasingly ravenous Facebook, in particular, is becoming a key financial competitor, not just a place where audiences congregate in massive numbers. Perhaps that will lead news organizations to pour less of what they create into the mouth of a beast that in the long run intends to eat them. If this was merely a business issue I wouldn't raise it, however. It’s much more than that. This is about whether the terms of service at a tiny number of giant companies, as opposed to the First Amendment, will effectively determine our free speech rights.

The corporate online powers are also spying on us. It is their business model. Journalists have been somewhat more alert to this issue, but even here there’s insufficient questioning of how modern technology could affect our freedom. Even if an Uber executive’s recent proposal to dig up dirt on journalists was only arrogant bluster, the company—like so many others— is collecting vast amounts of highly personal data on its customers, and we all need to be thinking harder about how companies can use and abuse big data.

I’m not asking journalists to ignore nuances in any of this; life and business and policy truly are complicated. But when it comes to things that directly threaten perhaps our the most fundamental liberty in a putatively free society — freedom of expression — there is no excuse for failing to explain what’s at stake. Nor is there any excuse for failing to take more direct action.

As noted, journalism has too often done an overall lousy job at explaining what’s going on. It’s not just the rampant conflicts of interest, like the laughable idea of Comcast-owned NBC doing honest coverage of network neutrality or copyright. (Sometimes this stuff is brazen: CBS directly interfered with its CNET tech site when CNET wanted to praise a technology that the parent company was trying, successfully in the end, to sue out of existence on copyright grounds.)

A larger problem may be that technology is integral to these issues in a Digital Age. Apart from the online press that focuses on tech, too few journalists understand it well enough. Yes, a few big print publications employ some excellent tech journalists, but most radio and television “news” (a word that belongs in quotes in this context) is an object lesson in tech illiteracy. Mention the “Indie Web” — a potentially important initiative aimed at re-decentralizing our communications—to most journalists and you’ll get a blank stare.

So education—of journalists, first, and then audiences—is just the start of what we need to do. More editorials like the Times broadside will help, but news organizations need to reflect a commitment to free speech in their coverage, and beyond.

When it comes to taking action, the revelations of pervasive U.S. government spying have spurred some journalists to pay more attention to security and, in a few cases, deploy countermeasures. (Appallingly, some journalists are kowtowing to government’s growing attacks on basic liberties.)

We need to do much more. Among many other things, we should be campaigning to help our audiences see the threat to their own lives.

On network control, news organizations should be shouting from the rooftops about the telecom industry’s power grab. They should be warning the public about what’s at stake. They should be lobbying for federal rules that protect speech and innovation, and at the state level against the telecom giants’ pernicious campaign to bar communities from deploying their own networks.

In all kinds of ways, we should be working to re-decentralize the Internet—both for our own sakes and the public good. The centralized powers won’t be tamed anytime soon, and they’re not all bad by any means. But let’s do what we can to help innovators at the edges of networks, because that’s where free speech starts and ultimately where it is heard.

Freedom of expression is everyone’s right. In a world where we can all speak and be heard — or at least where we should all be able to speak and make it possible for others to hear what we say —journalists have no greater duty than to be its most ardent defenders.

So I ask this of my journalism friends: Take a stand, loudly and proudly. Be activists. Unless you prefer a world of choke points and control by others, this is part of your job.

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