In the late 1990s, the staff at the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York took note of an exciting new trend in China. With traditional Chinese media under tight state censorship, people with something critical to say about their government had seized on the Internet as a new platform to publish their views. Their actions were not unlike the samizdat dissidents of the Soviet era or the poster-makers of Beijing University during the 1989 student uprising. But now, with the Internet, Chinese writers had the potential to reach a global audience.
In 1999, China arrested six people on charges of using the Internet to spread “anti-government” or “subversive” messages. I was the executive director of CPJ at the time, and we had to decide whether to take up their cases. None was a journalist in any traditional sense; reporting wasn’t their daily job and they didn’t write for established news organizations. But they were, we reasoned, acting journalistically. They disseminated news, information, and opinion. We took up the cases.
In the years since, CPJ has defended writers in Cuba, Iran, Malaysia, and elsewhere—some traditional journalists, some not—who used the Internet to get around official censorship. In CPJ’s view, these were entrepreneurial spirits using technology to battle enemies of press freedom. The many American journalists who supported CPJ’s global work readily agreed.
Yet what U.S. journalists recognized as a press-freedom breakthrough in China and Cuba looked different here at home. Here, the Internet wasn’t a thrilling way to dodge government censors. It was a platform for new competitors who seemed to take particular glee in lambasting the gatekeepers of mainstream media. In the view of some online writers, American journalism was calcified, too self-important to correct its errors or own up to its biases, too pompous to talk with its audience, rather than at it. The newcomers soon surrounded the tent of traditional journalism, demanding fundamental, maybe revolutionary, change. Many inside the tent huffed that the online competitors were not “real” journalists. They were acerbic ego-trippers, publishers of opinion and unconfirmed gossip with no professional standards. They stole the hard work of mainstream reporters and rarely picked up a telephone to do their own research. Some said bloggers threatened the established order of American journalism, and maybe even American democracy.
And so it went for a few years, bloggers versus journalists; a fight over much more than semantics, a fight to see whether the big tent of American journalism would become a bigger tent to accommodate the newcomers and their new ideas. Who belongs in that tent, and who gets to decide who’s in it? Put another way: Who is a journalist? It’s a tantalizing question, but it’s hardly worth asking anymore. We’re All Journalists Now declared Washington lawyer Scott Gant’s 2007 book, subtitled The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age. A less sexy but perhaps more accurate title might have been, We Can All Be Journalists, If and When We Choose to Be. But Gant’s basic point is sound: freedom of the press now belongs not just to those who own printing presses, but also to those who use cell phones, video cameras, blogging software, and other technology to deliver news and views to the world—just like those early Internet writers in China.
The expansion of the tent brings questions and challenges, of course—for institutions (who gets press passes?), for the law (how do you draft a shield bill if anyone can be a journalist?), and for journalists themselves (what are the standards of my profession?). Here’s a field report—snapshots, really—on how we’re all adapting to a fluid situation.
Soon after former radio and wire-service journalist Jim Van Dongen became a spokesman for the New Hampshire Department of Safety in 2003, he found himself confronted with press-pass applications from unpaid Internet bloggers and community-radio talk-show hosts. His first reaction: they’re not “legitimate” journalists. His second reaction: we need a definition of who is.