Changes, challenges likely for press freedom in coming year

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It’s a safe bet that A.J. Liebling didn’t anticipate the challenges facing today’s news media.

In 1960, Liebling, a press critic for The New Yorker, famously wrote that “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.” However true Liebling’s observation was at the time, today it serves primarily to remind us how much the press and its First Amendment freedom have changed in the last 50 years.

Those changes and the challenges they bring define the state of press freedom in 2011. In other years — indeed, in other decades — the freedom of the press was determined by the justices and judges who interpreted the First Amendment, balanced competing rights and enforced legal precedents. Today, those precedents are relatively settled, but the uncertainties that accompany the changing definition, technology and economics of the news media potentially overwhelm them.

Most significantly, no consensus exists as to who can claim press freedoms. While broadcasters have long enjoyed these freedoms, judges now hear websites, bloggers and tweeters claim they are “citizen journalists” entitled to the same First Amendment and newsgathering protections afforded the traditional news media.

None of these people or entities owns the type of press Liebling envisioned, but they don’t hesitate to claim the guarantee he described. As more of their claims percolate through appellate courts, the scope of press freedom is likely to be much discussed in 2011.

Though the nature of press freedom is more settled — laws regarding libel, invasion of privacy and subpoenas appear relatively resistant to changes in technology — one important freedom has been under an attack that is likely to intensify in 2011. For more than 200 years, access to court and other public records had been sacrosanct. For most of that time, however, reviewing those records was so time-consuming as to discourage widespread or commercial use of them.

Now, technology makes it easy to disseminate personal and other information that previously was considered “buried” in public records. As a result, officials have increasingly restricted access to what was once public information. In many instances, officials have developed those restrictions with a machete rather than a scalpel, prompting journalists to bring legal action. In 2011, courts likely will continue to struggle to strike the appropriate balance between privacy rights and the First Amendment right of access to public records.

Meanwhile, the news media’s economic woes are also likely to persist. In 1960, Liebling surely did not expect that, just 50 years later, thoughtful people in Congress and in journalism would seriously discuss legislation through which the government, in one form or another, would rescue an economically distressed news industry. That talk has subsided, but many of the industry’s economic problems remain. The slashing of news staffs, dropping of print editions and closing of entire newspapers create a state of flux in which the press — whatever that term now means — strains to find its role, reinvent its offerings and identify its customers.

This battle for relevance, if not survival, undoubtedly will continue in 2011. Fortunately for those fighting it, the freedoms they are guaranteed no longer depend on whether they own a press, have traded it in for a server or have mortgaged it to the hilt.