November 19th, 2008 | by JOHN MINERVINI News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP

TOME RAIDER LIVE: Freedom of the Press Forum @ Powell's

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    Forum Participant: “Do you monitor the readership numbers for your website?”
    WW Web Editor Ian Gillingham: “I think it would be fair to say, obsessively.”


Portland, it seems, is curious about freedom of the press and the future of the media. Last night (Wednesday, Nov. 18), for the second time in as many months, representatives of local news outlets and first amendment experts gathered at a free public forum to discuss what will become of informed journalism in the era of Twitter, jailed NYT reporter Judith Miller and the Patriot Act.

The discussion, hosted by Powell's City of Books (1005 W Burnside, 228-4651, powells.com), featured Willamette Week Web Editor Ian Gillingham and Davis Wright Tremaine attorney Kevin Kono, who specializes in issues pertaining to freedom of the press in the digital age. Speaking to a crowd of about 20, Gillingham and Kono discussed subjects such as liability for online content, the limits of First Amendment protections and the necessity of meeting readers on whatever platform they prefer (e.g. blogs, Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Twitter) in an era of shrinking print readership. Whereas Kono's emphases were more legal and conceptual, Gillingham addressed the day-to-day realities, innovations and compromises of a working news outlet.

The other recent event, co-hosted by the University of Oregon's Turnbull Center and the National Press Club, took place on Tuesday, Oct. 21. Its panel included Oregonian editor Sandra Rowe, KOIN anchor Tom Donahue, U of O Journalism instructor Mark Blaine, Think Out Loud producer Eve Epstein and moderator Gil Klein, a former National Press Club president. Click here to learn more about that event.

The Powell's forum began with a brief introduction by Gillingham and Kono, after which the two men opened the floor to questions, which the audience amply provided. Here are a few recurring themes that emerged from the Q&A. (Please note: both questions and answers are paraphrased for the sake of brevity.)


    Q: Can you get sued for what you write on a blog? What about user-generated comments on your website?
    A: Don't defame. Whether you publish a blog or a Pulitzer Prize-winning newsweekly, you're liable for any false statements of fact. And if you think you can get around that by simply soliciting defamatory content from your readers…well, you're wrong. You're still liable.
    Q: Do bloggers get press credentials?
    A: Just because you blog, don't mean you're a journalist. Although Gillingham and Kono were hesitant to define standard journalistic practices, both seemed to believe in applying basic benchmarks of reportage and fact-checking to blogs as well as print and broadcast media. The upshot? Journalists get access and become trusted sources. Bloggers type endlessly into the void.
    Q: On balance, do you think blogs create more problems than they solve?
    A: Blogs are good. True, misinformation and drivel run rampant in the blogosphere. But generally speaking, empowering citizens as journalists constitutes a powerful, positive change in this country. Blogs generate tips, criticism and act as fact-checkers for mainstream media; plus, they frequently tell inconvenient truths that the MSM is loath to cover.




To their credit, neither Kono nor Gillingham brought up the phrase “shouting ‘fire' in a crowded theater.” For a moment, I actually thought I might get out of this freedom of the press discussion without having to hear that old saw. It would have been the first time.

But even though the moderators seemed loath to bring up something everybody already understands anyway, certain audience members were much more willing. The woman who finally took the plunge identified herself as a formally-trained journalist. Gamely raising an eyebrow, she asked, “but what about, like, an instance of shouting ‘fire' in a crowded theater?”

Sigh.

Overall, the evening was a success. The audience, most of whom were taking notes, asked questions for 45 minutes after Kono's and Gillingham's presentation, and the discussion ranged from Oregon's media shield laws to the recent Lake Oswego City Council blogger case to “disemvowelling” inappropriate user-generated content. As the forum drew to a close, both presenters expressed guarded optimism about the world of electronic media in coming years, especially as many career journalists with considerable reporting experience are laid off by shrinking newspapers and begin to freelance.

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