UPDATED

A suggestion for the New York Times: Stop using anonymous sources except in the most rare of circumstances. If you can’t bring yourself to doing that, the next time you get burned by these people, burn them back.

The promiscuous use — make that abuse — of unnamed sources by our top news organizations is an ongoing, sick joke in journalism circles, and I believe one of the key reasons that journalism audiences have less and less trust of the craft. The Times is the most notable offender, because it’s the supposed Newspaper of Record.

Despite a history of promising to reform its ways, and despite the staggering damage that lying anonymous sources do its reputation, the Times is shameless and incorrigible in giving them a platform to deceive us. So why should we be surprised when they apparently did it again, in a story that ran last Sunday. I say “apparently” because, as usual, we have to trust the Times is telling the truth about the latest internal scandal where anonymous sources played a key role.

Let’s assume the top editors told the truth about this situation to Margaret Sullivan, the organization’s public editor. Her scathing critique of the latest Times scandal, which she headlined, “Systemic Change Needed After Faulty Times Article,” catalogued series of errors and failings.

The errors went far beyond allowing anonymous sources to poison the public well in the ongoing investigation of the recent killings in San Bernardino. Sullivan’s examination showed astonishingly lax newsroom practices. She quoted the paper’s top editors as saying they intend to create new procedures to ensure they don’t make the same mistakes again.

That would be great, but don’t hold your breath — especially when it comes to the granting of anonymity to people who repeatedly demonstrate they don’t deserve it.

Over the years, Times public editors have complained bitterly about the practice. Newsroom bosses have nodded wisely and said they take the problem very seriously and will change their ways. They never do. As former newspaper editor Howard Weaver posted on Twitter, “Like a hungover drunk who swears ‘Never again,’ the Times promises vigilance on anonymous sources whenever it gets burned, but drinks again.”

If the Times is serious about this, at long last, it could try to demonstrate its commitment to re-earning readers’ trust.

It could just stop — say “No,” and mean it, to everyone who demands anonymity. Say so publicly, and tell readers it won’t cite other news organizations’ stories that are based on anonymous sources unless and until there’s documentary evidence or confirmation from people who stand behind their words.

Try that for six months. See what happens. Yes, the Times would miss some stories, or get them later (and maybe get them right). Some readers, like me, would have more trust in what we were reading, too.

This doesn’t solve the problem of being lied to by on-the-record sources, of course. But at least then you have some accountability.

I’d make an exception to this rule, for the very, very, very rare cases — such as revealing the government’s illegal surveillance on the American people, or telling the world about human-rights abuses — where the use of anonymity is unavoidable. If someone’s life or freedom is at stake, and the story is important enough, readers will understand. They’ll still have a good reason to be skeptical of the story, however, as they always should when they encounter anonymous sourcing.

Another approach would be to disallow the use of unnamed sources in the publication without specific approval from three top editors — including the executive editor — who are biased toward saying “No,” and any one of whom could veto their use. Given the recent history at the Times, this probably wouldn’t change much of what emerges in print, but it would create a speed bump or two.

Finally, I’d urge the Times, and all who use unnamed sources, to do something else that would go a long way toward creating accountability under the current crappy system. Put a condition on granting anonymity: If the source for anything that the newspaper ultimately published turned out to have been lying, or even misinformed, he or she would be outed. Period.

Yes, this means that a source who’s been lied to would also be outed. Too bad. Maybe sources would be more careful in what they pass along in that case.

I’m not suggesting that any journalists violate any promises they’ve made in the past. A deal is a deal, even if we’ve been suckered. I am hoping some journalists will change the traditional terms in the future — for their own protection as well as the public’s.

What would happen if a policy like this were widely adopted? Journalists wedded to the current system will insist that we’ll have much poorer understanding of what’s going on. We can’t know for sure.

But I do know this. A policy like the one I’m proposing would a) dramatically reduce the amount of anonymous sourcing; and b) greatly improve the believability of the ones do show up in publications or broadcasts.

The Times is still America’s finest and most important journalism organization. I still pay for it, because I don’t want to see it disappear.

But until the Times and other news organizations clean up their acts, it’s up to you and me — that is, the audience— to solve this for ourselves. So I recommend you take my approach. I automatically disbelieve what anonymous sources say. Lately, it saves time.

(Cross-posted at Medium)

Mediactive_amArmenia-based “Journalists For The Future” has led a project to translate my book Mediactive into Armenian, and I visited there last week to help launch the new edition. I met some extraordinary people and learned a lot about the media scene there.

As with the original, the book is freely available online, in an interactive edition. You can find it at this link.

Special thanks to the U.S. Embassy in Yerevan for funding the project, and for covering the costs of my trip there.

 

medialitSome news: We’re launching a MOOC — a massive open online course — on news and media literacy. The course (here’s the registration page) will be based on an online course I currently teach at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and will be open to all who are interested, at no charge.

The  MOOC, which has received funding from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation, will be hosted at edX, one of the major–and rapidly growing–course platforms. ASU has become a member of the edX university consortium, and this is the first offering from the school. The course launches July 6, and registration is open now.

(Note: The media-literacy MOOC is not part of the ASU/edX Global Freshman Academy, which will be offering a battery of for-credit courses.)

We’re well aware that the jury is out, to put it mildly, on the ultimate value of MOOCs. Clearly they’ve been oversold in some ways. To think that courselogothey’ll take over education is absurd. Equally clearly, they have enormous potential. This course is experimental by definition, but we have two major goals: to make it a super-useful learning experience, and to learn from what happens in order to improve the next time.

One of the best parts of this project is the people involved. In the past several months we’ve recorded conversations with some of the smartest folks I know in the news and media-literacy communities. They include Wikipedia’s Jimmy Wales; New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan; CNN’s Brian Stelter; media-literacy guru Renee Hobbs; and many others. We’ll be featuring these conversations in the course.

This is a team effort in every possible way. I’m incredibly fortunate to be working with the ASU Online folks, who’ve been helping me sweat the details and who know lots of things I don’t. A team of students at the Cronkite School’s Public Relations Lab has put together some great marketing ideas. PhD candidate Kristy Roschke, whose focus is media literacy, is playing a key role in the course development and will be the lead teaching assistant when the course goes live.

MOOCs are open in ways that most university courses are not. Openness is core to my work–my Mediactive book, on which the course is largely based, is free to read online and/or download, and is available under a Creative Commons copyright license (“Some Rights Reserved”). I want to apply the principle of openness, as much as possible, to the new project. So I’ll be blogging regularly about how we’re doing this between now and the July 6 launch.

You may find this interesting to watch. If so, and if you think we can improve on what we’re doing, let me know. I’m looking for the best ideas, not just my own.

At the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, this week, I gave a talk entitled “Why Journalists Should be Activists,” and apart from a few departures from the text below, here’s what I said:

Two months ago, a New York Times journalist, investigative reporter James Risen, went on Twitter to denounce the Obama administration’s attitude toward the press. The administration, he said, was the “greatest enemy of press freedom in a generation.”

Risen’s tirade became a topic of conversation in the community of people who watch and comment on journalism. Some said a reporter shouldn’t be expressing such thoughts publicly, because it might cause readers to question his – and his newspaper’s – commitment to objective reporting. But the newspaper’s editor in charge of of journalism standards told Margaret Sullivan, the Times’ public editor,  that Risen had done the right thing.

“In general,” this editor said, “our reporters understand that they don’t and shouldn’t editorialize on issues we cover….I would put this in a different category.”

What category? Freedom of the press, of course. And he was right.

This was an important moment in the history of the New York Times. It was officially admitting that it is not neutral – isn’t pretending to be neutral – on this topic. The Times, as an organization, was taking an activist stance—far from its traditional role of observer and reporter.

I’m here to suggest to you today that all journalists need to think of themselves as activists in the world we now live in.

Before I explain this further, let me first explain what I mean by journalism and activism. Journalism can include so many things, ranging from deep investigative work to fluffy entertainment, but for our purposes I think of it as helping people understand they world they live in, so they can make better decisions about how they live. This often involves telling truth to the rich and powerful, and uncovering things that the rich and powerful would prefer to keep secret. It also involves being thorough, accurate, fair, independent and – this is not done enough – transparent. Journalism is vital to liberty, because it is a cornerstone of free speech.

For activism, I’ll simply use the dictionary definition: “the policy or action of using vigorous campaigning to bring about political or social change.” I’d add to that – sometimes activism is campaigning to stop things from happening.

In many parts of this world, doing real journalism is activism—because truth telling in some societies is an act designed to bring about change. I’m humbled by the people who risk their freedom, and sometimes their lives, to tell their fellow citizens and the rest of the world what is happening where they live. You will be hearing from one of them in the next talk.

In the western democracies with a more robust tradition of free speech and a free press, the idea of journalists as activists is often seen as taking sides in contravention of journalistic norms. But there’s a long and honorable history of what we call “advocacy journalism” – we could easily call it “activist journalism” – exposing injustices with the absolute goal of stirring public anger, and then public action to bring about change. In America, the people we called muckrakers in the early 20th century did brilliant journalism of this kind. Today filmmaker Laura Poitras, who’ll be speaking here by video this evening, and her colleagues are among many others who are carrying on that tradition. (Do see CitizenFour, by the way; it’s brilliant.)

Also today, we have a new category of journalism in this realm – journalism being done by people who are advocates first, and media producers second. I’m talking about Human Rights Watch, which consistently brilliant reporting on human rights issues around the world.

I’m talking about the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization in my own country that consistently does some of the best journalism – in several senses of the word – about threats to our fundamental liberties. In the interest of transparency, I should mention that my fantastically talented nephew, Daniel Kahn Gillmor, works with the ACLU.

In the past, these organizations and NGOs like them around the world were doing the journalism. But to get it seen they had to persuade traditional media organizations to care about, and then to publish or broadcast, reports based on the information the NGOs had collected. Now, in the digital age, every organization of any kind is also a media enterprise, and can go more directly to the public. Collaborations with traditional journalists are still helpful, but no longer as absolutely necessary as they were. We journalists should be welcoming the advocates to the journalism ecosystem – and recognizing them for their work. By the way, the American Civil Liberties Union probably litigates more open-records cases on issues related to liberty, using the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, than all traditional news organizations put together.

Now, I’m not saying all advocates are doing journalism – far from it. In many cases we’re getting untrue, unfair propaganda. We need know the difference, as journalists and as members of the public – that’s another talk entirely.

So we have a baseline of journalistic activism – all around us and often incredibly valuable – on a variety of topics. It makes many traditional journalists, especially in my country, uncomfortable. Why? Because we’re told, again and again, that one of journalism’s core values is objectivity and/or neutrality.

But even those journalists who worship at the altar of objectivity should recognize that on at least some issues, they cannot possibly be objective. Or at least, they should not be. On some issues we have to take stands, even though those stands may put us at policy odds with the people and institutions we cover.

What are these issues? The New York Times has picked one: freedom of the press. I hope no one here would dispute the need to take a stand for press freedom.

But I’d suggest this is only one of several policy issues where journalists who do not take activists stands are unfit to call themselves journalists. They all come under larger topics that are at the core of liberty, among them: freedom of expression, freedom to associate, freedom to collaborate, freedom to innovate.

We can’t be neutral here. We should be openly biased toward openness and freedom. Period.

Powerful governments and corporations are leading the attack against these core values, usually in the name of protecting us or giving us more convenience. In the process, these powerful entities are creating a host of choke points. They’re doing their best to lock down a lot of our computing and communications, and creating a system of control by others over what we say and do online.

This is a betrayal of the Internet’s decentralized promise, where speech and innovation and collaboration would often start at the edges of this network of networks, where no one needed permission to do those things. Choke points mean we have to ask permission.

What are these choke points? The most obvious is what’s happening to the Internet itself. Start with direct censorship, a growing trend in far too many parts of the world. I can’t imagine anyone here would object to journalistic activism on this front.

Surveillance, too, has become a method for government — often working with big companies — to keep track of what journalists and activists are doing—going way beyond the mission of stopping terrorism and solving major crimes. Surveillance is having a measurable chilling effect on freedom of expression, and no society that exists under pervasive surveillance can claim to enjoy basic liberty. We know from history that it deadens innovation and culture. If we don’t actively oppose mass surveillance, we’re not fit to call ourselves journalists.

Another choke point is the telecommunications industry. In America and many other countries– and often in concert with governments– big telecoms say they should have the right to decide what bits of information get to people’s devices in what order and at what speed, or whether they get there at all. This is what the network neutrality debate is all about in the U.S.: whether we, at the edges of the networks, or the telecom companies that provide the access to the Internet, get to make those decisions. If we don’t campaign for open and truly competitive networks, we’re not fit to call ourselves journalists.

“Intellectual property” is a valuable concept, but it’s also a choke point. Hollywood and its allies try to lock down or control innovative technologies that threaten incumbent companies’ business models. They’re abusing the patent and copyright systems, among other tactics. And they never, ever quit. The latest sneak attack from this crowd comes in a secretly negotiated treaty called the Trans Pacific Partnership is the latest attempt by the intellectual property cartel to prevent innovation, and speech, that it can’t control—among many other bad effects. (We know about some of this because Wikileaks has published drafts of several chapters of this immense treaty.) If we don’t explain to the public what is happening, and then campaign for a more open process and for the right to innovate, we are unfit to call ourselves journalists.

Speaking of Wikileaks, let’s mention another choke point: the major payment systems  like Mastercard, Visa and PayPal. They almost shut down Wikileaks with a funding blackout. Only a few news organizations noticed, much less complained. Yet if you can’t get paid for your work, how do you plan to put food on your table? The centralized payment industry holds enormous power, by proxy, over journalists’ ability to make a living. If we don’t campaign against its arbitrary decisions, we’re not fit to call ourselves journalists.

Now let’s be honest about something: We’ve helped create some of the choke points — by choosing convenience over liberty in relying centralized Internet platforms like Facebook and Twitter and Google. I have to note that these companies do provide useful services. And they are often trying to be advocates for free speech, though not consistently.

But do journalists understand that the Internet is getting new editors, namely the people who work for some of those companies? Do journalists understand that by feeding Facebook they are feeding a company that will be their biggest financial competitor? If this was only a business issue I wouldn’t raise it. But it’s much more than that. This is about whether the terms of service at a tiny number of giant companies, as opposed to the First Amendment and other laws like it, will effectively determine our free speech rights. If we aren’t activists for open, decentralized technology and communications, we are unfit to call ourselves journalists.

The corporate online powers are also spying on us. It’s their business model. Journalists are waking up to this, more so in Europe than in the U.S., but we all need to be thinking harder about how companies can use and abuse big data. If we aren’t campaigning for privacy from corporations, not just governments, we are unfit to call ourselves journalists.

I’m not asking journalists to ignore nuances in any of this; life and business and policy truly are complicated. But when it comes to things that directly threaten perhaps our the most fundamental liberties—without which journalism is vastly more difficult if not impossible—there’s no excuse for failing to explain what’s at stake. Nor is there any excuse for failing to take more direct action.

Core freedoms – of expression, association, and more – should be everyone’s right. Journalists have a duty to be their defenders.

So I ask this of my journalism friends: Take stands, loudly and proudly. Be activists. Unless you prefer a world of choke points and control by others, this is part of your job.

(Note: Portions of this talk are from a piece I wrote for Medium last year.)

Lawrence Krauss is a brilliant theoretical physicist and author of many popular books on science, and teaches at Arizona State University. I stopped by his office the other day to record a video conversation for a project I’m working on, and grabbed a quick video of the surroundings. Wish I had an office like this!

Patrick Frey, aka Patterico, and I appear to agree on several things when it comes to government’s role, if any, in assuring freedom of speech by promoting an open Internet. This is progress.

(If you’re spending your valuable time following any of this, here’s his first attack post; then my reply; and now his further response.)

We agree there is currently no genuinely free market in providing Internet access. We agree that it would be great if a free market did exist, and support various measures that would help get us there. And we agree that government, in the form of the Federal Communications Commission, has behaved badly in the past. There’s more, but those are the highlights.

We continue to disagree, firmly, on whether government can play a positive role in helping to ensure free speech on the Internet. Frey is convinced that the FCC’s recent net-neutrality decision is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, and that’s that, it seems. In his view, I’m naive to believe it could possibly be different.

Read the hard-core libertarian language in his post to understand where he’s coming from. He loathes government in just about every way. Consent of the governed, he says, is meaningless in modern America (bold lettering in the original):

Fuck this notion that we are the government and the government is us. That is total bullshit. We are the ruled. Period. End of story.

So what is the way forward for Frey? Naturally, the free market, full stop.[1. I like a lot of what libertarians say, but their free-market philosophy seems to go something like this: There’s really no such thing as a monopoly. Even if there is, the market will cure it. Even if the monopoly is so entrenched that the market takes decades to respond, that’s not our problem. Even if the market never responds, we’re all dead in the long run.] Not that we have one or, given the political system he believes we have, any possibility of one. And I’m naive.

Frey would have you believe that our conversation boils down to this basic–though profound–disagreement:

[Gillmor] trusts government. I (Frey) don’t. He thinks government will “forbear” from exercising powers that it can get away with exercising. I don’t. He thinks government getting its mitts on a part of the Internet will improve our lives. I don’t.

Anyone who’s read even a tiny amount of what I’ve written for, oh, the past 20 years or so is surely aware that I do not trust government as a general rule. I don’t trust Big Government, Big Business, Big Anything. I do leave open the possibility that they can (and sometimes do) get it right. This isn’t because they tend to do things based on good will, though sometimes they do. It’s more often because countervailing forces, such as voters, courts, customers, etc., can apply enough pressure to get a better outcome.

We may well need those countervailing forces–checks and balances–in a Title II future, because no one in this debate, least of all me, thinks the FCC’s action was the perfect solution. Its net neutrality ruling was distinctly less bad than the alternative it was floating earlier: handing control over the Internet’s key on-ramps to the rapacious telecommunications cartel that has demonstrated its unfitness to have such control.

We were heading toward control of speech by a cartel that, being businesses, have zero First Amendment obligations. Frey says we’re heading toward control of speech by a cartel of bureaucrats. Because, you see, since the FCC did it with broadcast, they’ll do it with the Internet.

Government, unlike business, actually does have some First Amendment obligations. And the Internet could hardly be more different than the broadcast system that the FCC did regulate poorly in the bad old days. 

The Supreme Court has weighed in, firmly, on the issue of whether the Internet is like broadcast, which was heavily regulated on the (increasingly specious) principle that the airwaves were scarce. Not even close, the court said in a key 1990s ruling about the “Communications Decency Act, which the court mostly tossed out as violating the First Amendment. (I appreciate the reminder of the CDA ruling from Seth Finkelstein, a longtime correspondent, and critic, who has persuaded me I was mistaken on more than one issue over the years.) Key language:

[U]nlike the conditions that prevailed when Congress first authorized regulation of the broadcast spectrum, the Internet can hardly be considered a “scarce” expressive commodity. It provides relatively unlimited, low cost capacity for communication of all kinds. The Government estimates that “[a]s many as 40 million people use the Internet today, and that figure is expected to grow to 200 million by 1999.” This dynamic, multifaceted category of communication includes not only traditional print and news services, but also audio, video, and still images, as well as interactive, real time dialogue. Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer. As the District Court found, “the content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought.” 929 F. Supp., at 842 (finding 74). We agree with its conclusion that our cases provide no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium.

Maybe some future Supreme Court will totally abandon us, and decide that tight regulation of Internet speech is constitutional. If so, the United States of America, and the Bill of Rights, will have long since become just meaningless ideas. For now, I’ll give some trust to a system where we still have some checks and balances–and work hard to hold Big Government and Big Business accountable. If that makes me terminally naive, so be it.

 

Patrick Frey, aka Patterico, and I appear to agree on several things when it comes to government’s role, if any, in assuring freedom of speech by promoting an open Internet. This is progress.

(If you’re spending your valuable time following any of this, here’s his first attack post; then my reply; and now his further response.)

We agree there is currently no genuinely free market in providing Internet access. We agree that it would be great if a free market did exist, and support various measures that would help get us there. And we agree that government, in the form of the Federal Communications Commission, has behaved badly in the past. There’s more, but those are the highlights.

We continue to disagree, firmly, on whether government can play a positive role in helping to ensure free speech on the Internet. Frey is convinced that the FCC’s recent net-neutrality decision is the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent, and that’s that, it seems. In his view, I’m naive to believe it could possibly be different.

Read the hard-core libertarian language in his post to understand where he’s coming from. He loathes government in just about every way. Consent of the governed, he says, is meaningless in modern America (bold lettering in the original):

Fuck this notion that we are the government and the government is us. That is total bullshit. We are the ruled. Period. End of story.

So what is the way forward for Frey? Naturally, the free market, full stop[1. I like a lot of what libertarians say, but their  free-market philosophy seems to go something like this: There’s really no such thing as a monopoly. Even if there is, the market will cure it. Even if the monopoly is so entrenched that the market takes decades to respond, that’s not our problem. Even if the market never responds, we’re all dead in the long run.] Not that we have one or, given the political system he believes we have, any possibility of one. And I’m naive.

Frey would have you believe that our conversation boils down to this basic–though profound–disagreement:

[Gillmor] trusts government. I (Frey) don’t. He thinks government will “forbear” from exercising powers that it can get away with exercising. I don’t. He thinks government getting its mitts on a part of the Internet will improve our lives. I don’t.

Anyone who’s read even a tiny amount of what I’ve written for, oh, the past 20 years or so is surely aware that I do not trust government as a general rule. I don’t trust Big Government, Big Business, Big Anything. I do leave open the possibility that they can (and sometimes do) get it right. This isn’t because they tend to do things based on good will, though sometimes they do. It’s more often because countervailing forces, such as voters, courts, customers, etc., can apply enough pressure to get a better outcome.

We may well need those countervailing forces–checks and balances–in a Title II future, because no one in this debate, least of all me, thinks the FCC’s action was the perfect solution. Its net neutrality ruling was distinctly less bad than the alternative it was floating earlier: handing control over the Internet’s key on-ramps to the rapacious telecommunications cartel that has demonstrated its unfitness to have such control.

We were heading toward control of speech by a cartel of rapacious companies that had zero First Amendment obligations. Frey says we’re heading toward control of speech by a cartel of bureaucrats. Because, you see, since the FCC did it with broadcast, they’ll do it with the Internet.

Government, unlike business, actually does have some First Amendment obligations. And the Internet could hardly be more different than the broadcast system that the FCC did regulate poorly in the bad old days. 

The Supreme Court has weighed in, firmly, on the issue of whether the Internet is like broadcast, which was heavily regulated on the (increasingly specious) principle that the airwaves were scarce. Not even close, the court said in a key 1990s ruling about the “Communications Decency Act, which the court mostly tossed out as violating the First Amendment. (I appreciate the reminder of the CDA ruling from Seth Finkelstein, a longtime correspondent, and critic, who has persuaded me I was mistaken on more than one issue over the years.) Key language:

[U]nlike the conditions that prevailed when Congress first authorized regulation of the broadcast spectrum, the Internet can hardly be considered a “scarce” expressive commodity. It provides relatively unlimited, low cost capacity for communication of all kinds. The Government estimates that “[a]s many as 40 million people use the Internet today, and that figure is expected to grow to 200 million by 1999.” This dynamic, multifaceted category of communication includes not only traditional print and news services, but also audio, video, and still images, as well as interactive, real time dialogue. Through the use of chat rooms, any person with a phone line can become a town crier with a voice that resonates farther than it could from any soapbox. Through the use of Web pages, mail exploders, and newsgroups, the same individual can become a pamphleteer. As the District Court found, “the content on the Internet is as diverse as human thought.” 929 F. Supp., at 842 (finding 74). We agree with its conclusion that our cases provide no basis for qualifying the level of First Amendment scrutiny that should be applied to this medium.

Maybe some future Supreme Court will totally abandon us, and decide that tight regulation of Internet speech is constitutional. If so, the United States of America, and the Bill of Rights, will have long since become just meaningless ideas. For now, I’ll give some trust to a system where we still have some checks and balances–and work hard to hold Big Government and Big Business accountable. If that makes me terminally naive, so be it.

 

Patrick Frey, who blogs and tweets under the pseudonym Patterico, picked an odd fight yesterday over what should have been a simple disagreement. In the process he made false statements about what I want to see in telecom/media policy.

First, though, here’s where we do agree: The FCC’s move to reclassify Internet service providers as common carriers could have negative consequences. If Frey posted that on Twitter, I’d retweet him in a heartbeat.

While I support the commission’s decision, have argued for it, and have publicly worried about the potential unintended consequences, I don’t assume these consequences are inevitable. Frey does. But to make his point, he resorted to tactics that surprised me, given my prior respect for his work.

He’s blogged about all this at Patterico.com, in a tendentiously titled post that extends his original false claim. I’m responding to the central points in that blog post, not the irrelevant personal stuff or the “nuance-free slogans and analogies” he barraged me (and his followers) with on Twitter, which once again demonstrates its unfitness for serious conversation. Read it and come back. I’ll wait.

For those of you who didn’t read his post, here’s how Frey picked the fight. A blog post by news industry analyst Ken Doctor about plunging single-copy sales of newspapers led me to tweet that by drastically hiking prices of single copies, newspapers had found a new way to commit suicide.

This led to Frey’s opening salvo:

.@dangillmor Final blow for newspapers: they increasingly rely on the Web, and people like you want the government regulating it. @kdoctor

— (@Patterico) March 14, 2015

There are only two rational ways to read this. 1. I want the government to regulate the Web, and by extension what people post on it. 2. I want government to regulate the Web, but I’m too dense to understand what that might lead to. From his later statements, I gather that he meant the second interpretation. Both are false (never mind conflating the Web and the Internet, which as you’ll see below he did correct). Since I write publicly about telecom policy, and since I’ve respected Frey (and said so in my book We the Media a decade ago), I was flabbergasted.

(I called his tweet a lie, and said I was surprised that he would say such a thing. As he has pointed out, a lie is a deliberate, knowing falsehood. Since I can’t read his mind, I’ve retracted that word. I’ll stick with “false” to describe what he wrote.)

Here’s the meat of Frey’s blog post (bold text in the original):

  • Newspapers are increasingly reliant on the Internet to communicate with their audience.
  • The FCC this year is assuming regulatory control over the Internet.

Seeing those two facts together should frighten all Americans. With the death of newsprint, the federal government (under the guise of Net Neutrality, which Gillmor supports) is putting regulatory control over the new printing press — the Internet — in the hands of the Federal Communications Commission.

Is the Internet the new printing press? Sure, and a lot more. Is the FCC assuming regulatory control over the Internet? It is asserting regulatory power over one (relatively) small part, in a small but crucial way. It is working to ensure that the people who create media and other services, using that printing press and other tools, are treated fairly by the cartel of corporate giants that has taken unprecedented control–over how what we create may (or even will) be seen by others who want to see it.

The promise of the Internet “network of networks” was in its radical decentralization. Innovation and true freedom of expression would originate at the edges of those networks, where we wouldn’t need anyone’s permission to innovate or speak because we were free of centralized control.

The corporate giants that control most of the on-ramps to the fabled information superhighway want the right to decide what bits of information get delivered at what speed and in what order, or if they’ll get delivered at all, to those of us requesting the information. And they insist they’d never, ever abuse that control. (They already have.)

Big Telecom doesn’t operate the 21st Century printing presses. You and I do. Big Telecom isn’t the Internet; it is part of the Internet. But it has become the antithesis of the Internet’s promise–a centralized choke point.

The FCC’s Title II decision recognizes the choke point for what it is, and attempts to mitigate the worst effects. The ruling says, essentially, that we–you and I, at the edges of the network of networks–should decide on our own priorities for what we access from digital networks. It says the centralized cartel shouldn’t make those decisions for us.

Frey hearkens back to the early days of the FCC and its subsequent control over broadcasting to frighten us with the specter of FCC Internet content regulation, citing the commission’s pernicious (we agree again!) regulation over broadcasters’ content through the decades. If there was ever a need for policing televised wardrobe malfunctions in an era of government-limited broadcast outlets–there was not, in my view–it ended when the Internet gave us, in theory, unlimited multidirectional channels of communications.

But Frey, citing a slew heavy-handed government threats and actions against broadcasters, predicts the same is in store for the Internet as a result of Title II reclassification. He’s saying, This is what governments do, and it’ll happen again. (He mistakenly says the FCC has turned the ISPs into utilities, when in fact they’ve been reclassified as “common carriers”–the difference is important and highly relevant in this debate.)

Frey’s argument is a bit like saying government regulations about auto safety, such as requiring seat belts, is just the first step toward the government deciding precisely where you can drive. I suppose that’s possible, but one doesn’t inevitably lead to the other.

Governments don’t always go too far. When they’re “of the people, by the people, for the people,” we have a say in what happens.

The nation’s founders had the right idea when they established freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion and more in the First Amendment. America hasn’t always lived up to these ideals, which are always under attack from people and organizations who worry about too much freedom. But the FCC decision on net neutrality very much honors the founders’ intent.

The FCC has explicitly said it would apply forbearance (a key word in the legal and regulatory arena), making clear in the rules what it won’t do–which covers the parade of horribles even supporters of Title II fear. (Here’s a Q&A that explains the concept.) And never mind that the public is getting better at understanding what the Internet is and how it works–not to mention increasingly wary of centralized power and downright allergic to government control of what we can read or write.

There’s one bit of forbearance I wish the FCC hadn’t done, in what’s called “unbundling” of the last mile (to our homes and businesses). Given the monopoly/cartel nature of the staggeringly profitable ISP business we’d have been better off if the commission had required the ISPs, particularly the cable companies, to let other companies create ISPs on “their” lines. (Unbundling, by the way, has a track record in several other countries. It’s not the answer but it can help in the short run.

This is exactly what our oppressive government did in the early days of the public Internet. In the 1990s there were thousands of small ISPs competing for our business on wired phone lines. The phone companies were not permitted to discriminate against them, because they were common carriers. And the Internet took off in large part because there was vast, and valuable competition for our business, something the anti-net-neutrality forces never seem to remember.

On one other key point, Frey and I agree entirely, even if we’d undoubtedly get there by different routes: the best fix to this situation is competition. There is a small amount of competition now, but the overall American “broadband” marketplace is a parody of genuine capitalism.

The dominant ISPs got where they are because the marketplace was rigged in their favor. They built “their” networks on the backs of government-granted monopolies in the first place. Then they leveraged their built-in advantages–including cozy deals with various governments–to create a cartel that will be immensely difficult to dislodge, though we should keep trying.

Here’s how we could have genuine competition, or move closer to it:

  • Require monopoly/oligopoly businesses created through special favors to then make their facilities–lines, towers, etc.–available to competitors until such time as there’s actual competition for what they do;
  • Require communities to make their rights of way accessible to all competitors, which would help create the conditions for competition, though it wouldn’t undo the unfair advantages the cartel already possesses as a result of its monopoly days;
  • Forbid state governments from preventing municipalities from installing publicly owned broadband networks (the carriers have “persuaded” lots of state governments to enact competition-killing rules of this kind, and the FCC’s latest rules wisely pre-empt such laws);
  • Free up vastly more unregulated spectrum–ideally created from the airwaves we unconscionably gave to the national and local broadcasters–letting competition emerge there the way it did in wi-fi;
  • Promote, in that spectrum, the promising area of “smart radios,” recognizing that there is a spectrum “shortage” caused by “interference” largely because traditional radios have been so inefficient;
  • And make many other moves aimed at creating the conditions where genuine competition can emerge and thrive.

The chances that the telecoms and their owned-and-operated legislatures would allow actual competition are close to zero. If the opponents of net neutrality really believed in competition, they’d push for something like this. I’m not holding my breath.

Meanwhile, I’ll settle, with misgivings, for Title II. And, working with the enormous group of pro-net-neutrality folks who’ve demonstrated expertise and good will on this issue, I’ll do my best to see that it doesn’t boomerang on all of us. Fear-mongering, even if it’s well-intended, won’t help anyone.

(Note: I’ve updated this post with several small tweaks.)

The Guardian has decided as an institution to put climate change front and center in its journalism. Alan Rusbridger, who’s stepping down as the organization’s top editor this summer, put it this way in an editorial:

So, in the time left to me as editor, I thought I would try to harness the Guardian’s best resources to describe what is happening and what – if we do nothing – is almost certain to occur, a future that one distinguished scientist has termed as “incompatible with any reasonable characterisation of an organised, equitable and civilised global community”.

This is what journalism needs to be, and what it needs to do: Stand for something and then put all available resources behind making it happen. This couldn’t be further from the false neutrality of so much modern “journalism.” Nor could it be more important to make a more common practice.

In my last book, Mediactive, I made a list of what I thought news organizations should do in this digital age when the competition for people’s attention has never been greater. One of those recommendations went this way:

The more we believed an issue was of importance to our community, the more relentlessly we’d stay on top of it ourselves. If we concluded that continuing down a current policy path was a danger, we’d actively campaign to persuade people to change course. This would have meant, for example, loud and persistent warnings about the danger of the blatantly obvious housing/financial bubble that inflated during the past decade.

What the Guardian is doing about climate change strikes me as a perfect–maybe the perfect–example of why campaigning should be an essential part of the craft. It’s long overdue for other news organizations to pay attention, and get active, themselves.