For the past two years, there has been a little badge at the bottom of the left sidebar on this blog. It’s cute – reminiscent of World War II posters – but the words, about liberty and blogs, are a critical reminder of our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms.
I was inspired to post that badge linking to a bloggers’ legal guide at the Electronic Frontier Foundation two years ago after attending the first Blogher conference in California. At the end of an engaging day of new ideas and new friends where all 300 attendees were gathered in a large meeting room, New York University professor, Jay Rosen (who blogs at PressThink), joined in the wrap-up discussion. I don’t remember anything else he said, only this:
“Blogs are little First Amendment machines.”
“YESSSSS!" I thought. "Exactly!” It is what we have needed for as long as I can remember – a way for anyone, anywhere, any time to have his or her say where any- and everyone can read or hear it. And now we do.
So I posted Jay’s astute observation just below the little badge as a daily reminder to myself – and readers who notice it – that what we do here in the blogosphere isn’t all ego and recipes. Something important is happening that has the potential to change the relationship between the people and the press, and between people and government. In fact, it already has.
On Tuesday, Jay published a story on alternet.org (reprinted from Huffington Post) titled, “A Blog is a Little First Amendment Machine.” Due to blogs and the emerging two-way nature of the web, Jay explains, media is no longer a one-way street from producer to audience:
“As it moves toward the Web, journalism will have to adjust to these conditions, but a professionalized press is having trouble with the shift because it still thinks of the people on the other end as an audience - an image very deeply ingrained in professional practice.
“I'm going to tell you some stories that I think illustrate the disruptive effects that blogging has had, and the democratic potential it represents.”
One of those stories concerns Senator Trent Lott who, in December 2002, appeared to support the segregationist 1948 presidential campaign of Senator Strom Thurmond. America would have been better off, said Lott, if Thurmond had been elected. Mainstream media mostly ignored the story, but as Jay explains:
“It turned out that bloggers from the left as well as the right were puzzled and disgusted by Lott's comments, and they continued to discuss them. For three days the story was the talk of the blogosphere while the news cycle moved on to other things. But political reporters were reading the blogs, and by the fourth day they realized - This was news!
“The story of what Lott had said re-broke in the major press - five days after it happened - and he began apologizing for it while major political figures reacted. Ten days later he resigned as majority leader; his power was gone.
“Here's the part of the story I want you to focus on: the chances of a television producer from CBS or a style reporter from the Washington Post not knowing enough history to see any import in Trent Lott's comments were pretty high. But the chances of the interconnected blogosphere not knowing this background were zero.
“To this day professional journalists do not understand this fact, even though it was one of the things that helped sink Dan Rather when his badly flawed report on President Bush's National Guard service was attacked (and sunk) by bloggers and their readers.”
You may think that’s just a little blog you’re publishing – something about your town, or a book you read or the grandkids. But it is much more than that. So long as there are millions of us keeping watch over media, government, corporations and others who would seek to influence us, they become more accountable, our liberty is furthered and democracy is strengthened.
“The most famous words ever written about freedom of the press are in the U.S. Constitution: ‘Congress shall make no law...’ concludes Jay Rosen. “But the second most famous words come from the critic A.J. Liebling: ‘freedom of the press belongs to those who own one.’
“Well, freedom of the press still belongs to those who own one, and blogging means practically anyone can own one. That is the Number One reason why blogs - and this discussion - matter.
“With blogging, an awkward term, we designate a fairly beautiful thing: the extension to many more people of a free press franchise, the right to publish your thoughts to the world.
Wherever blogging spreads, the dramas of free expression follow. A blog, you see, is a little First Amendment machine.”
Jay includes four more stories about how democracy has and can be furthered through blogs and I urge you to read his important piece.
[At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Frank Paynter shows how expert our pets are in manipulating us, in Searching for Veneta.]