Saturday, July 24, 2010

There Must Be a Better Way

To this point, I have avoided jumping in to the Shirley Sherrod business.

But an issue has been raised that I simply must address.

Let me start by saying that, for 30 years, ever since its debut when I was a journalism student at the University of Arkansas, I have admired what Ted Turner wanted to do and sought to do when he created Cable News Network.

It isn't an easy task, providing people with up–to–the–second information about news as it develops, but CNN has done an admirable job of trying to tell people about the events that have shaped their world and altered their lives in the last three decades.

I realize that CNN has many competitors today — not just on cable but on the internet as well — and the pressure to be the first to report something is intense. CNN, it seems to me, has made a valiant effort to maintain high journalistic standards, and that isn't always an easy thing to do.

Sometimes CNN has had to sacrifice speed for accuracy, which is a difficult but often necessary choice to make.

A year ago, in fact, in the media frenzy surrounding Michael Jackson's death, nearly every cable and online media outlet — except for CNN — reported by mid–afternoon that Jackson had died. Why didn't CNN go ahead and report what we know now to be true? Because CNN, unlike all the other outlets, was waiting for someone in authority at the hospital to confirm the news.

All the other outlets were going with the opinions of people who may have been in a position to observe Jackson or to report an absence of vital signs — like, for example, the emergency response folks who responded to the 9–1–1 call and took Jackson to the hospital — but they did not have the legal authority to pronounce someone dead.

Once CNN had that confirmation, it joined the chorus.

As the Shirley Sherrod saga has unfolded in recent days, though, it seems that CNN — which recently announced that it was scrapping the Associated Press as a content provider, in part as a money–saving strategy and in part because of CNN's desire to establish its own brand in the newsgathering business — has yielded to the pressure, and the standards I always admired in CNN seem to have taken a back seat to expediency and scapegoating.

Yesterday, as Alana Goodman of the Business & Media Institute writes, CNN's Kyra Phillips and John Roberts ranted about those who "blog anonymously" and use that anonymity to write things that, to put it mildly, probably would be considered libelous in what used to be called the "Associated Press Stylebook and Libel Manual."

The implication was that anonymity on the internet makes it possible for people to be smeared and their lives and careers to be destroyed — even though it was clear to everyone long before Phillips and Roberts engaged in their witch hunt (which glossed over the fact that the credible and responsible journalists, including those at CNN, took the blogger's word at face value, as did the administration) that the blogger in this case was not anonymous at all.

There are many legitimate issues that have been raised by this unpleasant chapter, but internet anonymity is not one of them.

I do believe that internet anonymity is an issue that needs to be addressed — and probably will be addressed as communications law evolves, through legislation and court rulings, to include technology that didn't exist when the original laws were written — but not in the context of this particular issue.

Managing editors in newsrooms all over the country need to talk to their reporters and editors about journalistic standards, double–checking the facts, things like that. Barack Obama — or someone authorized to speak for him — needs to talk to his administrators about how to handle allegations against subordinates, especially in this highly charged, polarized atmosphere.

And we all need to talk about scapegoating, to revisit constitutional guarantees that a person is entitled to know the charge(s) against him/her and to face his/her accuser(s). A person who is charged with a crime that might cost him/her liberty and possibly life is entitled to a lot of things that Sherrod apparently was denied, by both the media and her employer.

In the context of this matter, internet anonymity raises entirely separate issues — primarily freedom of speech, which, for a legitimate journalist, means freedom of the press.

Freedom of the press, I was told in journalism school, was guaranteed to those who owned a printing press. In the 21st century, I suppose that could be amended to freedom of the computer, which really has been around since the late 20th century. And, like the belief that access to just about everything on the internet should be free — once one has paid the monthly admission price, in the form of an internet account — freedom of the computer is considered a given.

If you have a computer, so the thinking goes, you are free to post what you want. There are consequences, it is believed, that await those who carelessly post revealing pictures or objectionable comments. Nothing, after all, is truly anonymous on the internet — not with all the ways there are to track a person's electronic fingerprints.

In spite of their obvious applications in more practical fields, like business and banking, computers have long been billed as the best all–purpose tool for self–expression, whether one is a writer, an artist, a photographer, a filmmaker, a musician, whatever.

And a lot of people use blogs to share what they write or sing or sculpt or paint or photograph with others.

It truly has been freeing for the creatively inclined — but, having said that, I feel compelled to note that, with some of the things that are being posted, I have been sure for quite awhile that it was only a matter of time before something would have to be done to demand accountability and prevent bloggers from posting irresponsible rumors and gossip.

Such restrictions have existed in print journalism for a long time, and they have evolved as the term "media" expanded to include radio and television — and will have to expand further to include the same issues as they apply to the internet.

The sense of anonymity that many bloggers use as a shield behind which they can say what they please — as well as the mistaken belief that the concept of "fair comment" will defend them against all lawsuits (it won't) — must be addressed at some point. I believe these and other issues will — and should — be addressed.

But the Sherrod case does not provide the appropriate stage for that discussion. For Phillips and Roberts to speak of internet anonymity in connection with this matter whitewashes their own culpability, as well as that of CNN, the other all–news networks and the administration.

No comments: