Monthly Archives: April 2010

Apple and Bloggers (cont.)

I am re-posting an earlier blogpost, from 2005, for two reasons:

1. It seems timely in light of the stolen iPhone case and the “shield law” protections that might or might not extend to a blogger,


2. I still cannot figure out how to salvage all my archives from my former host (Lunarpages). Help!?



by Christopher B. Daly

Who is a journalist?

In America, where we don’t license journalists, that is not always a simple question. Lately, the issue has come up in a new light because of the claims made by people who post Web logs. Bloggers came to prominence during the 2004 election, often criticizing or correcting the “mainstream media.” Recently, the first blogger in history was issued credentials to cover the White House. And just last month, a California judge was asked to decide whether bloggers who write about Apple computers can enjoy the legal protections of that state’s “shield laws.”

Not surprisingly, most bloggers insist that they are journalists, entitled to equal rights with older media. Others disagree, saying bloggers are not journalists by any stretch. Recently, for example, Los Angeles Times media critic David Shaw argued that bloggers should not be considered journalists because they have no experience, they have no editors, and they have no standards.

Who is to say?

One approach to an answer is historical. In fact, bloggers stand squarely in a long-standing journalistic tradition. In this country, their roots go back to the authors of the often-anonymous writings that helped to found America itself by encouraging the rebellion against Britain.

Beginning around 1760 and continuing at a quickening pace, the colonists began taking part in a great public argument — about the rights of Englishmen, the nature of civil society, and the limits of power. What began as a trickle of protest grew into a torrent of polemic.

Hundreds upon hundreds of pamphlets were printed in the colonies between 1760 and 1776, providing the intellectual setting for the debate over independence. Those writings — and their authors — played a role that was at least as important as established newspapers in giving expression to the growing political crisis.

The pamphlets were crucial to the rebellion because they were cheap, because they presented provocative arguments, and because it was impossible for the royal authorities to find their authors and stop them. The authors of the pamphlets were not professional writers, nor were they printers. They were lawyers, farmers, ministers, merchants, or — in some cases — men whose true identities are still unknown. It was a well-established practice in colonial times for writers to use pen names, even when writing on non-controversial subjects.

With the coming of conflict with England and the fear of reprisals by the authorities, most pamphleteers resorted to writing under a nom de plume such as Cato or Centinel — the “Wonkette” and “Instapundit” of the day.

They would use a sympathetic printer’s press under cover of night, then sneak the pamphlets out for distribution. As a result, the pamphleteer had one great advantage over the printer: he could state the boldest claims against the Crown and not have to fear any penalties. The pamphleteers amounted to the nation’s first version of an underground press, a guerilla counterpart to the established newspapers.

The greatest pamphleteer of the age was certainly Thomas Paine. He arrived in Philadelphia late in 1774. Already 37, Paine was not a terribly impressive figure (you might even call him a “slacker”). Born in England, he had failed in the family’s corset-making business and later got fired as a tax-collector. His first wife had died, and he was separated from his second one. Jobless and nearly penniless, he set sail for a new life in America. On the way, he fell ill and nearly died.

Then his life began to turn. He began writing essays for The Pennsylvania Magazine. He met and became friends with several advocates of independence, including the prominent doctor Benjamin Rush and the visiting Massachusetts lawyer John Adams. After a few months, Paine left the magazine but continued writing. Soon, he wrote a pamphlet of his own.

Titled Common Sense, it appeared on Jan. 10, 1776, and it shook the world. The impact of that pamphlet, out of the hundreds then circulating, was unprecedented. Paine later estimated that some 150,000 copies were sold, so it was probably read by about half a million people — at a time when the entire colonial population was about 2 million.

Like most other pamphleteers, Paine wrote Common Sense anonymously, but his central idea was unmistakable.

Paine embraced republicanism — the idea that people can govern themselves without a hereditary or religious central authority.

His first target was the monarchy itself. In Paine’s view, when stripped of all its ermine robes and gilded scepters, the monarchy consisted of naked power, plain and simple. In language that sounds a lot like ranting, Paine said the English crown could be traced to William the Conqueror, whom he dismissed as “a French bastard landing with an armed banditti.”

He went on to call for “an open and determined declaration for independence,” and he promised his readers that “the sun never shined on a cause of greater worth.” These were radical ideas, and Paine became a wanted man.

Common Sense and other pamphlets like it were precisely the kind of political journalism that Jefferson had in mind when he insisted on a constitutional amendment in 1790 to protect press freedom — anonymous, highly opinionated writing from diverse, independent sources. In historical terms, today’s bloggers are much closer in spirit to the Revolutionary-era pamphleteers than today’s giant, conglomerate mainstream media. On those grounds, blogs deserve the full constitutional blessings that the First Amendment guarantees.

But that is not to say that bloggers have carte blanche. It is important to remember that the First Amendment is a limit on the government’s power to impose prior restraint — that is, to prevent ideas from reaching the public by shutting down a newspaper before publication. It has always left journalists open to consequences that might arise after publication — such as being sued for libel or being ordered by a judge to reveal a confidential source.

It is clear that bloggers enjoy First Amendment rights, which are strongest at protecting opinions.

It is less clear that they should be entitled to the protections of all the other laws that have been passed since the Founding that affect journalists.

Consider, for example, the state and federal “shield laws,” which in general allow journalists to protect confidential sources, as in the Apple case. Many bloggers say they should be covered by those laws.

Here again, history offers a guide. Most laws protecting journalists are much newer than the First Amendment. They were passed in recent decades in order to protect and foster a specific activity called reporting.

What we think of as reporting — the pursuit, on a full-time basis, of verifiable facts and verbatim quotations — was not a significant part of journalism in the time of Jefferson and Paine. In fact, the practice of reporting began around 1833 in New York’s “penny papers” and gradually spread during the 19th Century.

Nowadays, when we ask whether someone is a journalist, we may need to refine the question. We should ask: Is this the kind of journalist who presents analysis, commentary, or political rants? Or, is this the kind of journalist who offers the fruits of reporting? Or some of both? The issue is not the job title but the activity.

Anyone who engages in reporting — whether for newspapers, magazines, radio, television, or blogs — deserves equal protection under those laws, whether the news is delivered with a quill pen or a computer.

“What do we mean by the Revolution? The war? That was no part of the Revolution; it was only an effect and consequence of it. The Revolution was in the minds of the people, and this was effected, from 1760 to 1775, in the course of fifteen years before a drop of blood was shed at Lexington. The records of 13 legislatures, the pamphlets, newspapers in all the colonies, ought to be consulted during that period to ascertain the steps by which the public opinion was enlightened and informed…”

–John Adams, writing to Thomas Jefferson, 1815.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Narrative conference

By Chris Daly

Boston University was the epicenter of thinking about narrative non-fiction last weekend. Great talks by Gay Talese, Bill Keller, Buzz (Fucking) Bissinger, Adam Hochschild and others — including a couple of brilliant speakers from the other side of the street, novelists Ha Jin and Allegra Goodman.

A favorite moment: seeing Gay Talese sitting in the right-field bleachers at Fenway. I snapped this shot with my phone camera. Next to Talese is the writer Isabel Wilkerson (the main organizer of the conference); taking his seat is our dean, Tom Fiedler.

As the sign says, "Make something great."

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Sense about Twitter

Sree from the Columbia Journalism School has some informed, common-sense things to say about Twitter.

And, he knows what he’s talking about.

Bio Photo

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

A Tea Party news nugget

By Chris Daly

Today’s New York Times features a story and charts on the findings of the latest Times/CBS News poll — this one about the demographics of the Tea Party movement.

One finding that caught my eye had to do with where Tea Party members get their news. No surprise, they get “most” of their news from Fox News. In fact, the preference for Fox News was the biggest skew in all the findings that I could find. Comparing Tea Party members to a category defined as “all adults” (is this like contrasting them to “normal Americans”?), there was a 40-point spread in news consumption. Even compared to Republicans, the Tea Party folks favor Fox over other news sources.

Maybe we should just call it the Fox Party.

Leave a comment

Filed under Politics

iPad impressions

by Chris Daly

My next-door neighbor, software engineer Dan Bricklin, did me a favor last night: he let me borrow his iPad for a couple of hours. Dan got one on Day 1, because he is designing a new and improved version of his iPhone app “Note Taker.” In a characteristic burst of generosity, Dan brought his iPad over to my house, plunked it down, showed me some features, and left.

Some early reactions: As a reader, the iPad is terrific. It is bright, pretty sharp, and blazing fast. On the receiving end, it’s great. I’m not sure what it would be like to rely on one to generate material, but as long as I have a desktop computer somewhere for the heavy lifting, it may not matter.

My major gripe about the iPad: Why isn’t it better for reading text? I looked at several news sites (NY Times, AP, USA Today, NPR) and some magazines. In every case, I wished that the text were darker — truly black, not some shade of grey. And I wish the images were crisper. The edges of every letter appears blurred. I had a print version of Time magazine lying nearby, and the comparison was dramatic. So, if the iPad is going to be the workhorse of media consumption, it could be better.

Photos and video looked great. The size is great, the weight is good. The keyboard will probably prove itself very useful. The navigation is smooth and natural and — as a bonus — you can swipe, enlarge, and even “flip pages” in a book, all in a very intuitive way. It would certainly do an outstanding job of replacing 2-3 newspapers, a couple of magazines, and a book in a briefcase.

An early favorite site: NPR has a terrific layout and generous amounts of audio.

An early disappointment: the NYT. I expect the best from the Times, and what I found online as a version of the Times specially formulated for the iPad looked more or less like the Times Digest, which is no great shakes. I ended up using Safari to navigate to the paper’s (free) Website. It looks a bit busy and cramped on the iPad, but they have not come up with anything better yet.

I’m sure there’s more to discover. But it’s strange: I’m a little less eager to rush out and buy one than I was before using it.

More later.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized