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3/8/2005
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The Apple Bloggers 3: Heirs To Revolutionary Pamphleteers

AppleInsider, PowerPage, and ThinkSecret are the 21st century descendents of Common Sense, Thomas Paine's 1776 pamphlet defending colonial independence from England.

AppleInsider, PowerPage, and ThinkSecret are the 21st century descendents of Common Sense, Thomas Paine's 1776 pamphlet defending colonial independence from England.Blogs on the three Websites-let's call them the Apple Bloggers 3-posted Apple Computer trade secrets. As Paine's words in Common Sense provoked King George III, the blogs goaded Steve Jobs to sue the Websites to disclose those who leaked the secrets.

California, where Apple is based, has a shield law that affords journalists protection against revealing unpublished information, in this instance, the names of their sources. A provisional ruling last week by Superior Court Judge James Kleinberg said that protection doesn't extend to bloggers.

The judge's tentative decision is wrong. Strict constructionists, those interpreters of the U.S. Constitution who claim to understand its literal meaning, should join civil libertarians in extending journalistic protections to bloggers. Simply, it's the process and not the medium that defines a journalist.

Pamphleteering was a common form of journalism in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War. "Pamphleteers were a part of the press that Jefferson and other founders had in mind when they established freedom of press," says Christopher Daly, associate professor of journalism at Boston University. To be fair to Daly, he sees similarities between pamphleteers and bloggers who comment on political matters, not necessarily those reporting on business.

True, it might be the political bloggers who can claim to be direct heirs of Paine, not the Apple Bloggers 3. But, if shield laws protect business journalists as they do political reporters, business bloggers-the great-great-great-great grandnephews thrice removed from the pamphleteers-should be offered the same rights.

Besides, who is a journalist? The First Amendment makes that hard to say. Unlike other professions-law, medicine, cosmetology-journalists can't be licensed. A reporter can be fired from a job, Daly says, but can't be kicked out of the profession. "You become one by going around and asking questions; when you stop doing that, you stop being a journalist," says the J-school prof, who's writing a history of American journalism, Covering America, which he hopes to publish next year.

The Apple Bloggers 3 asked the questions, and published their answers. That makes them journalists.

But extending the rights of journalists to bloggers has perils for traditional journalists and the American public. "There are some potentially really bad things that could come without any distinction," says Paul Grabowicz, director of the New Media program at the University of California Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, quoted in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. "Principal among them is, if there is no distinction, things like shield laws that protect journalists go away, because they apply to everybody else."

That is a real problem. No doubt, people will exploit blogging in order to gain protection from legitimate inquiries by prosecutors and civil litigants on how they acquired secret information. How to differentiate those who are truly practicing journalism will be a tough challenge for our society. Yet, that's a separate issue. The Apple Bloggers 3 practiced journalism, and they should be granted the same liberties of mainstream journalists. It's just a matter of common sense.

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