Charlie Savage reports at The New York Times that Democratic Senators proposed legislation to legislatively define who is a “journalist.” Senators Charles Schumer (D-NY) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) drafted an amendment, likely to the “Free Flow of Information Act of 2009” (S. 448), that would apply the “media shield” to protect sources only to “traditional news-gathering activities and not to web sites that serve as a conduit for the mass dissemination of secret documents.
I have not seen the text of the proposed bill, but in concept it risks attempting to define what is quickly becoming indefinable: what is media. This is an idea even “traditional” media is grappling with. The medium was a differentiator for a time, but no longer. Do you read The New York Times in print or online? You could differentiate based on “professionalism”, but the line between “blogger” and “journalist” is also blurring as journalists blog and bloggers become journalists in the minds of the readers, which includes the media. Certainly it is not the quality of product.
Savage reports, however, that the Senators have not bought the propaganda of Assange and Wikileaks that they are media, a claim made in interviews and by supporters. On the Wikileaks site and in practice, their mission is simply dissemination, even if they occasionally package material for “maximum political effect.”
This is a tricky area, which legislation proponents admit. As Savage notes, the purpose of the legislation is ultimately to:
create legislative history that would show judges that Congress did not intend for the law to cover such organizations. The idea, aides said, would be to add language bolstering a section defining who would be covered by the law as a journalist — an area that can be tricky in an era of blogging and proliferation of online-only news media outlets.
What about news aggregation services, raw information feeds, YouTube, or Twitter? Is the line based on the value-added to original content? Is there an amount of commentary Wikileaks will need to add to each posting to qualify it? Certainly the precise wording of the bill will be more important than any report that may accompany the legislation.
The challenge of Wikileaks is more than its outing of documents and propaganda of paranoia. It is about the convergence of mediums, online and offline, challenging “traditional” media as a trusted source of information, and the blurring of data and information and the importance of providing context for valid interpretation.