Sunday, April 17, 2005

Thomas Paine: World's first blogger?

Chris Daly, a journalism professor at Boston University, has pretty much the most fascinating essay I've read yet about whether bloggers should be considered journalists as well. His argument is basically that the pamphleteers of the American Revolutionary period served almost the exact same purpose, and distributed their work in almost the exact same way (allowing for technological differences, of course) as current bloggers - and since the US's policy concerning freedom of the press was designed with these exact pamphleteers in mind, it shouldn't be a stretch at all to apply these freedoms to bloggers as well. He uses as a great example Thomas Paine, author of the 1776 series of pamphlets Common Sense, a major influence on the Revolutionaries during the Colonial period. (It's been estimated, for example, that a whopping 25 percent of the entire American population read it in its first year of publication.) And once you start looking at the details behind that publication (and pamphlets in general), the similarities between them and blogs become almost eerie:

--Both blogs and pamphlets are cheap to print and distribute;

--They both contain provocative, almost rant-like essays at times;

--It's almost impossible for authorities to track down the authors of either, if the author chooses to remain anonymous;

--And the vast majority of both bloggers and pamphleteers are amateur writers, not professional ones.

Now, Mr. Daly also goes on to point out a major difference between journalists and bloggers as well; basically, that there's a difference between "freedom of the press" and the specific "shield laws" under so much debate these days, which offer extra protections for journalists above and beyond what the Constitution lays out. Shield laws and the like, he argues, didn't come about until after the invention of "reporting" in journalism - that is, of a shared ethics code among established journalists, one that includes the unbiased writing and multiple source-checking that we now think of when we think of "journalism." Bloggers may not specifically be entitled to be protected until modern shield laws, he opines, but this in no way should affect bloggers from being classified as journalists, as the Founding Fathers viewed the industry. I'm not doing the essay very much justice here, frankly; you should just go and read it yourself, because it really is an eye-opener. (And thanks to Dan Gillmor for pointing this out in the first place.)