Taking a Stand

Working in media policy and seeing the devastating impacts of bad media policy on local communities and on our media itself, I’ve often wondered why more journalists are not outraged. When it comes to the most vital media policy debates of our time where are the voices of journalists?

This is slowly shifting. While discussing media policy and the role of journalists as advocates for the future of journalism, a friend of mine said to me, “We cannot be objective about our right to exist.” This week the faculty at the Columbia University Journalism School took that sentiment to heart, writing a letter to President Obama and Attorney General Holder in defense of Wikileaks First Amendment rights.

They write:

“But while we hold varying opinions of Wikileaks’ methods and decisions, we all believe that in publishing diplomatic cables Wikileaks is engaging in journalistic activity protected by the First Amendment. Any prosecution of Wikileaks’ staff for receiving, possessing or publishing classified materials will set a dangerous precedent for reporters in any publication or medium, potentially chilling investigative journalism and other First Amendment-protected activity.

As a historical matter, government overreaction to publication of leaked material in the press has always been more damaging to American democracy than the leaks themselves.

The U.S. and the First Amendment continue to set a world standard for freedom of the press, encouraging journalists in many nations to take significant risks on behalf of transparency. Prosecution in the Wikileaks case would greatly damage American standing in free-press debates worldwide and would dishearten those journalists looking to this nation for inspiration.”

The letter comes just days after Steve Yelvington wrote “Five sad reasons American press isn’t outraged” in which he quotes a friend who asks, “Why isn’t the American press screaming at the top of its lungs about this. How can we let the Joe Lieberman’s of the world lead this discussion. If the press doesn’t take a stand here we are doomed. There will be no reason to have a “press” in this country.” HIs post distilled the heart of the issue better than I can, and some of what he says has implications for the larger question of the role of journalists and public policy in shaping the future of journalism.

It is vital for journalists to be take tough stands on complex policy issues like this that strike at the fundamental question of what journalism is, and what it will be.

1 Comment

  1. Josh Stearns says:

    On Twitter Dan Kennedy pointed out that the Boston Phoenix has a strong editorial on Wikileaks and the First Amendment here: http://bit.ly/gynOTf

    Also worth noting Yochai Benkler’s statement at a recent Columbia Journalism School event: “Every journalist in this room shd shudder at the news that Amazon took Wikileaks off its servers.”

    Also an important read is Dan Kennedy’s Guardian piece, which came out well before the Columbia J-School letter:
    “By contrast, the White House’s legal war against WikiLeaks is a shameful assault on our guarantee of free speech and a free press. It’s ironic that after two years of bogus claims from the right that Obama is dismantling the constitution, now that he really is, the only people who seem to care are on the left.”

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