Defining a Journalist

In class this week we have been discussing the danger of the government defining who is and who is not a journalist. As a cardinal rule, governments should not get to credential the press because it is the fastest way to have a press that is uncritical of power.

Those in power would only credential journalists who will serve the governments’ best interest — which was the exact opposite of what the founders of our country have in mind when they developed the First Amendment and the Constitution. The founders would not have been in power if not thanks to a dissident and free press; somehow, however, we have come to a time again in which our politicians have gained power not through a dissident press, but a mainstream one. Now, those politicians try to narrowly define journalists in order to maintain that power.

This week we read the Common Dreams article “Senator’s Attempt to Define ‘Real Journalism’ Blasted by Journalists,” by Sarah Lazare. Lazare writes about Sen. Diane Feinstein’s attempt to define who is a journalist during a debate regarding a federal shield law. But what was more worrisome was what the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Charles Schumer said:

“The world has changed. We’re very careful in this bill to distinguish journalists from those who shouldn’t be protected, WikiLeaks and all those, and we’ve ensured that,” said Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y). “But there are people who write and do real journalism, in different ways than we’re used to. They should not be excluded from this bill.”

Even the sponsor for the bill — who, in theory, should be journalists’ champion — wanted the bill to be exclusionary and to particularly exclude the most dissident of information disseminators.

I started reading different opinions on the internet, including the NAA’s Five Myths about the Federal Shield Law and documentary journalists Tricia Todd’s blog for HuffPost. I also looked around on the SPJ website and found that, a month after the Common Dreams, SPJ President Paul Fletcher blogged about the definition the Senate ended up with:

The definition is really broad, as it should be. It includes college journalists, freelancers, bloggers (particularly those with traditional legacy media experience in the past 20 years), anyone working for a “news website” and just about anyone else gathering information and disseminating it for the public good. It specifically excludes terrorists and there is language that would exclude groups like WikiLeaks.

And it has a safety valve: If there is disagreement a judge can decide.

Even after our class debate, I’m still thinking a lot about the issue — mostly asking myself, is there another way? I support a federal shield law. And I wonder, can we have one without defining what it means to commit an act of journalism?  Can we define journalism while we protect it? The First Amendment is noticeably brief on the subject, simply stating “the press” when referring who to protect. Can that continue to be enough?

Brave New Films documentary follows example of historical independent journalism figures

Recently I read the Washington Post article “His Fans Greenlighted the Project,” which reports on how Robert Greenwald got his fans to fund his documentary Iraq for Sale overnight in 2006 — before he even made the movie. The Post called is “a revolutionary idea.”

It was a brilliant idea and an idea that succeeded. But was it revolutionary?

I wrote in my historical independent journalism research paper about I.F. Stone’s Weekly. In the paper, I wrote that when I.F. Stone launched his weekly independent newspaper in 1953, in the frigid political climate created by McCarthyism, Izzy was smart in gaining subscribers. He employed what he called “piggy-back launching”: using the mailing lists of the defunct radical newspapers PM, the Star and the Compass to reach the right people. Izzy wrote in his autobiographical essay:

“The existence of these highly selective mailing lists made it possible to reach what would otherwise appear to be needles in a haystack—a scattered tiny minority of liberals and radicals unafraid in McCarthy’s heyday to support, and go on the mailing lists of, a new radical publication from Washington.”

Izzy’s newspaper got off the ground in the 1950s because he recognized that he had true fans who would believe in his new project and he found a way to tap into that fandom to fund the project. I wonder what Izzy could have done with the internet or how he would have launched his paper today. The thousand true fans concept that we’ve discussed in class comes to mind.

In his essay, Izzy doesn’t explain what that first mailing was — what did he send in the mail to those previous subscribers? Was it the first issue? Or did he get them to sign on with just a teaser of what was to come? I wonder how similar his method was to that of Brave New Films. If it was so similar, then was Greenwald revolutionary or adapting the same methods to updated technology?

The documentary was also lauded for being so community-oriented — it was primarily viewed in temples, churches, union halls and school auditoriums. This too was effective — though not revolutionary. As Rodger Streitmatter wrote in his book Voices of Revolution, one of the reasons the early labor presses were so successful were that they created a sense of camaraderie — workers would read them aloud to each other in union halls or other gathering places. Both the labor press and the Brave New Films documentary had vast impact because people consumed their reporting in groups where they could debate the content and plan further action.

I don’t think these connections takes anything away from the success of Iraq for Sale. On the contrary, I think these are arguments as to why it’s such a good example of great independent journalism — Greenwald learned from indies before him and built upon society’s technological advancements to make their methods even stronger. He might not be revolutionary but he is pretty inspiring.

William Jacobson and Legal Insurrection

This week my indy media class hosted Cornell law professor William Jacobson as a guest speaker. Jacobson is the founder of the conservative political blog Legal Insurrection. Our class conversation focused on how to create a blog and grow it over the years — hopefully all without losing money. I walked away with a greater understanding of what a financial undertaking a blog really can be.

Jacobson told our class with a chuckle that, in the seven years the blog has been live, he’s never had a business plan for Legal Insurrection because he never intended to start it. He also admitted that he probably isn’t doing everything he could to optimize his funding and readership. But the fact that shocked me the most is that he makes no money personally from the blog, even though he puts in a lot of his personal time to make it happen. Instead, all profit is turned into paying more writers and more content producers, to building the blog. Jacobson may not have the business plan perfected but he does have the serious commitment to and passion for the project — one that trumps personal gain. Jacobson seems committed to doing everything he can, with the free time he has, to keep the blog alive. I wish I had asked him this during discussion: what makes him keep going?

Financially, he has a number of funding streams to keep the blog going. He detailed to my class the myriad of funding methods he utilizes: from Amazon Associates, to Google advertising, to issue-based advertising, to donations. Each of these sources bring in a trickle of money that forms a stream of funding strong enough to sustain a daily blog with two full time writers and multiple other contributors, he said.

Jacobson also told us, that beyond funding, a blog cannot survive without others driving traffic to the site. He said this has become increasingly rare, as more conservative blogs are bought by corporate giants who keep traffic within their own site and do not link to other sources. When a more famous blogger links to his site, it can drive a leap of traffic to him for days (which often means more money in advertising). But this sense of community between conservative bloggers in disappearing, he said.

When it comes to the smaller community involved in his blog specifically though, Jacobson said he feels that has remained strong. He said his site’s comment section has been successful mostly because commenters must make a Legal Insurrection account to be involved in discussion, which means most people commenting are committed community members who add meaningful content to the conversation. This point made me consider that camaraderie is just as important a commodity as capital when it comes to launching a successful blog.

Why is Independent Media successful?

Half way into the semester, I’ve been thinking about the broad concepts we have discussed in my Independent Media class and I have noticed one question has come up in some capacity almost every class meeting so far: what makes indy media successful? No matter the outlet, the journalist, the issue, the country, we are discussing, this has been a strong common thread.

Among the many reasons I could offer, I think this is the strongest: Independent media does what mainstream media does not. It covers the issues the MSM does not see as valuable. It goes to the places the MSM does not visit. It gives voice to the people the MSM does not listen to.

That’s not too outlandish of an answer. It’s pretty solid and backed up by weeks of discussion, as I said. But what I really want to talk about is what that answer has made me think about: Would independent media be as strong or as important if mainstream media did not fail?

I believe that it can be argued that the strength and value of independent media is in fact fed by the failings of MSM.

Take a look at this article from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, headlined “How a Misguided War Led to a Powerful Nonprofit Partnership.” An excerpt:

The misguided war in Iraq was first and foremost a folly of American policy makers. But it was also a failure of American journalism. The sad fact is that most major news organizations reported the buildup toward war without adequate skepticism or scrutiny.

But the nonprofit press wasn’t taken in by the Bush administration’s marketing and manipulations. Even as most of the journalism world struggles to be heard, the nonprofits are having more influence than ever as they collaborate to raise vital issues like war and peace and wealth and poverty in ways that reflect the public interest.

In class, we have discussed how independent media flourished during the Iraq War, how it gained so much more respect from readers (new and old) during this time period. I would argue that indy media flourished not only because they got the story right, but also because the MSM got the story oh-so-wrong.

And since then, independent media has built on that momentum, taken hold of that trust, and produced excellent journalism with it. Just look at the example used in that Philanthropy article: the citizen who recorded the 47% video came to Mother Jones reporter David Corn — not a mainstream reporter. Because of large MSM blunders, that citizen trusted independent media more.

Somehow, tragically bad (mainstream) journalism has fueled an era of insightful, engaging and important (independent) journalism. Like the chicken or the egg question, I wonder, which comes first? Bad mainstream journalism or good independent journalism?

While I think that mainstream mistakes have fueled a renaissance for indy media, the real reason independent media succeeded is because they were ready to catch the MSM when they fell — thanks to years of hard work before the Iraq War moment arrived.

George Seldes and the Spanish dictatorship

Recently my Indy Media class watched the documentary “Tell the Truth and Run,” which chronicles the life and work of independent media giant George Seldes. I’ve also read the obituary written by my professor Jeff Cohen and his writing partner Norman Soloman after Seldes died in 1995. They wrote about Seldes’ three years reporting in Spain during the country’s bloody and bitter Civil War:

Like few other journalists in the 1930s, Seldes shined a fierce light on fascism in Europe — and its allies in the United States. Seldes repeatedly attacked press barons such as William Randolph Hearst and groups like the National Association of Manufacturers for assisting Hitler, Mussolini and Spain’s Gen. Francisco Franco.

George Seldes and his wife, Helen, covered the war between Franco’s fascists and the coalition of loyalists supporting the elected Spanish government. A chain of East Coast daily newspapers carried the pair’s front-line news dispatches — until pressure from U.S. supporters of Franco caused the chain to drop their reports.

This particular part of Seldes’ journalism experience struck me. He was one of the few American journalists reporting from Spain during the war, and perhaps one of the only critics of the dictatorship. And when he became too critical of the regime, he was silenced by the MSM.

Decades later, it is no coincidence that most Americans know little about the brutal Spanish Civil War or the harsh 40-year rule of dictator Gen. Francisco Franco. I studied and lived in Madrid for four months last spring and was embarrassed to discover how little I knew about the regime before I arrived in Spain. I had studied Spanish language since age six and was studying politics, independent journalism and Spanish culture throughout college, but somehow the education system in the United States had not taught me about this war or this dictatorship and, in my ignorance, I had not sought out the information on my own.

One of the most important revelations I had while abroad was the extent to which the United States aided in the military rule of Spain and the extent to which this partnership had been glossed over in my history textbooks for years and years of schooling. History.com reports the fact that took me by surprise:

Franco secured massive U.S. economic aid in return for military bases in Spain, and the Spanish economy steadily grew.

When I was confronted by this fact, I was also confronted by my Spanish friends’ resentment of the United States for this selfish, militaristic decision. My country had given financial support to a regime also supported by Hitler and Mussolini. An LA Times report explained it well in a 1989 report on Spain’s decision to continue as a NATO-country:

Bitter and deeply rooted resentment against the United States for supporting the late dictator Francisco Franco is one of the factors working against Spanish approval Wednesday in a referendum on Spain’s continued membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

If there were more journalists like George Seldes in the world during the Spanish Civil War, I believe my high school history books would have been different and my high school Spanish classes would been more comprehensive. If there were more brave and critical reporters in the field, and more independent editors in the newsroom, Americans would not fall for the “official” story. They would know the truth.

‘Free Love’ in the Victorian Age

I’ve recently been reading ‘Voices of Revolution,’ by Rodger Streitmatter, a book about how dissident American journalism has impacted our national history. One chapter in particular stood out to me. I’ve learned about other topics covered in the book – such as the independent labor presses, the abolitionist newspapers, the birth control advocacy magazines – in previous classes but I had never even heard of the ‘Free Love’ Movement of the Victorian Age. Chapter 7 delves into the work of journalists well before their time and braver than I can imagine.

“For three decades, the sexual reform press sought to convince the American public that marriage was not always a sacred institution but sometimes a profane one,” writes Streitmatter (61). These journalists / activists asserted “that sexual intercourse should only occur when both partners were willing” and exposed “the hypocritical lifestyles of Victorian men” (61-62). And in doing so, they risked their lives – “being sent to prison and dying early deaths” (62).

These men and women fought incredibly important battles and faced public hatred in the face of their courage. They did not live to see any reforms, or even to see their movement come alive again a hundred years later. But, regardless, they were relentless in their passion and pursuit of these principles. I have great respect for them and for the values for which they fought.

However, there were a few parts of the chapter that made me stop and think critically about their work. One such instance was “The Beecher-Tilton Scandal Case.” The scandal exposed the infidelity of an upperclass married man – The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, “the country’s most celebrated clergyman” (70). Victoria Woodhull, the notorious free love advocate and publisher of the sexual reform newspaper Woodhull and Claflin Weekly, broke the scandal. Her intentions were to expose the hypocritical lifestyle of a prominent man who preached “morals” to society.

Caught in the crosshairs of this scandal were the women with whom Beecher was having extra-marital sex. Woodhull related “the sordid details of the affair, including divulging that Elizabeth Tilton was by no means the first married woman to share the esteemed clergyman’s bed: ‘Henry Ward Beecher preaches to at least twenty of his mistresses every Sunday’” (71).

My first question is: Without naming the women, would the article have had so much punch? Would people have believed it? What benefit is there to naming the women?

More importantly: what harm is there to naming the women? Were they also Woodhull’s target? Or were they collateral damage?

I think Streitmatter could have more critically assessed this issue in this chapter, and without that ethical analysis the chapter seems a little too rosy. These journalists, while brave, were imperfect.

Streitmatter writes that Woodhull published the incendiary article while she was “still smarting from the accusations that had been leveled at her own domestic arrangements with her former and current husbands” (71). Later, Streitmatter mentions that Woodhull even had an affair with Elizabeth Tilton’s husband. Was she not inflicting on other women the same harm the mainstream media inflicted on her?

Woodhull’s movement was all about supporting the “‘right to love whom I may, to love as long or as short a period as I can, to change that love everyday if I please’” (61). So then, why does Streitmatter not criticize her victimizing women who lived by that principle? Yes, Beecher preached against free love but practiced it anyway – but the women were not public figures attempting to shape social moral code. They were living their life – and lovely freely as Woodhull had encouraged, as Woodhull herself lived her life.