Press Freedom and the Internet

Cory Bergman over at Lost Remote got me thinking about lawyers in an entry about Walter Cronkite suggesting lawyers need to be looking for libel and slander on the Internet.

Cronkite disses the internet
First let me say, I love the guy. Walter Cronkite is a legend. But in his final newspaper column, Cronkite has a few choice words about the internet:

“I am dumbfounded that there hasn’t been a crackdown with the libel and slander laws on some of these would-be writers and reporters on the Internet. I expect that to develop in the fairly near future.”

Why all the bad blood? Apparently Cronkite was the subject of a nasty joke on the web in the mid-90’s. That’s still no reason to call out the lawyers on online journalists and bloggers. (Via Rogers Cadenhead’s letter on Romenesko)

In 1979, I had the privilege of hosting Reuven Frank, former president of NBC News, at an awards banquet in Milwaukee. He received the top honor of the Milwaukee Press Club, the Sacred Cat, and was the keynote speaker. Instead of talking fondly about TV, he took the occasion to launch out at lawyers. Here are some worthwhile excerpts from an article in the Milwaukee Sentinel the next day.
The news business and the law business are on a collision course in America.

Lawyers hate our guts. They look upon ‘free press’ as our work character, just as we look upon ‘fair trail’ as theirs. But they have us outnumber, outdollared and outgunned.

The three part separation of powers, as we all learned as children is central to our system, gives one branch to lawyers by definition. They seized the other two long ago by naked aggression and have held them ever since as zones of occupation.

Today it is impossible to function in an executive or legislature unless you are a lawyer, or are in thrall to lawyers — lawyers on your staff or the lawyer you work for or, perhaps, the lawyers on his staff. All restrictions on how news is gather and presented are imposed by lawyers, and when we want relief, we must go other lawyers to fight them. Whatever happens happens their way. And, whenever we decide to do something about it, we must do it their way.

Lawyers do not understand what we do, because they do not think as we do. Their thinking is organized, ritualized and bipolar. Ours is disorganized, individual and multipolar. When a reporter goes forth on a story, he has no idea of what he will find and only a general idea of what he is looking for. He does — or at least he should not — be seeking only such information as buttresses a conclusion he has already reached.

You can see the difference (between reporters and lawyers) when you realize that, if his story becomes part of a trial, his notes may be subpoenaed by both sides (in the lawsuit) each looking for something else.

The fair trial will always win over free press, not because it is nobler in concept, or more central to the workings of democracy, but because whenever the choice has to be made, it will be made by a judge (who is also a lawyer).

While a lawyer is protected by the confidentiality of the lawyer-client relationship, the reporter has no such protection fore the raw material of his craft, a craft which the Constitution says the country needs.

In the history of this republic, many judges have gone to jail, but I know of none who went there on a matter of principle. Freedom of the press is threatened. It’s supposed to be threatened. It is — I believe, intentionally — an irritant factor in our system. Those who operate the system are supposed to dislike it, to try to suppress it. When they find nothing about us to resent, to try to stifle, there will be no point to a free press. If it ever does not need defending, it will not be worth defending.

Reuven’s words are as true today as when he spoke them that night. What will be interesting when (not if) lawsuits begin to arise against bloggers is the extent to which press organizations like the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press will get involved. Stay tuned.


  1. Oh great… Now we’ll have ambulance chasers searching Google for potential libel lawsuits.

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