The back gate screeched as someone fumbled with the latch in the dark. My husband and I, finishing a late dinner, assumed our son was stopping by. Instead, at the door was a neighbor I hadn’t seen in quite a while, knocking as she clutched a bright yellow bouquet of flowers.
You’re going to think I’m nuts, she told us, then proceeded to say she was so upset about the shooting of French journalists at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo that she wanted to show her support for the media by bringing me flowers.
I was, and am, incredibly touched.
The more than 1 million people, along with leaders of 40 countries, who gathered last Sunday in Paris showed France and the West will not cower in response to this vivid and terrifying threat to free speech. It was a defiant and collective voice that made clear intimidation will not fray a liberty held dear, a core value for many of us. Je suis Charlie.
Journalists don’t own the right to free speech; it is a right for all. But the companies and nonprofits that make up the intellectual property industry – whether those in the news business, movies, television, books and more – spend money and take risks to ensure this liberty is protected for everyone.
Look worldwide and you see the ability of journalists to report the news freely and safely – and earn a living doing so – varies widely. Politics, religious beliefs and even the economics of technological change threaten what in this country is viewed as a balance to power: unencumbered daily journalism.
We are fortunate that few journalists in the U.S. have faced ruthless violence like that at Charlie Hebdo. In the last quarter century The Bee’s journalists have faced danger and sometimes serious injury when they’ve worked where crowds are out of control – riots in Los Angeles, the aftermath of a San Francisco earthquake, even near a park on a warm spring day in Oak Park. It is a rare story of corruption or murder where we’ve needed to plan security for a reporter.
Instead we face threats far less personally terrifying but with potential to fray the edges of free speech: bureaucracies that bury records to protect themselves. Politicians who hide behind social media so they can control their message and image without public accountability. Companies that make money using copyrighted material without permission. Even individuals who enjoy the news and rely upon it but who think everything on the Internet should be free (what happened to the economic theory that there are no free lunches?).
To all of them I ask: What does our country look like if it does not have an industry whose mission is to ask questions of the powerful, to ensure the public is aware of corruption, of wrongdoing? To protect the public interest?
Here is just one example: Sam Stanton and Denny Walsh revealed in 2014 that a mentally ill inmate died at Mule Creek State Prison after he was pepper-sprayed in the face for acting out. He had a breathing tube in his throat and guards refused efforts by medical staff to decontaminate him. His parents were unaware of his death until The Bee notified them. A federal court reviewing California’s treatment of the mentally ill was unaware of the circumstances of his death. After our stories, a reopening of the court hearing and internal investigations at the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the state changed its policy regarding treatment of the imprisoned mentally ill.
Most recently Stanton and Walsh are focusing attention on another federal court case in which a man imprisoned for nine years of a 20-year sentence has been freed; federal prosecutors only recently have released key documents to the defense and court, spurring the man’s release.
The courts can and do provide a balance to power. Our role is to dig deep, to reveal the circumstances of a death or find out why documents never were revealed. It costs money to do that.
On Dec. 21, the website TechCrunch ran an opinion piece by Danny Crichton (reprinted in The Bee) that said, “Publishers have been offered a seriously raw deal in the war over content on the Internet. Linking to another site is free, and there are few revenue-sharing agreements between publishers and technology companies.” He attributed this to U.S. tech companies that have influenced worldwide business models and pointed to a new law in Spain in which technology companies are required to pay publishers when they link to their content.
At least one tech company – Google – has no desire to comply; it immediately shut down Google News in Spain in response.
Few published reports agree with Crichton’s opinion and publishers in Spain who initially pushed for the law are now opposed, reportedly because of loss in reader traffic from Google.
It is too broad a swipe at the business model question to hold all technology companies accountable for using journalism or other content from publishers without compensation. Does Twitter benefit from journalists breaking news in 140-character tweets and then linking back to their news sites? Of course it does, so much so that it spends time training journalists how best to use Twitter. Our work gives the company free, credible content for its users. Who benefits more, Twitter or journalists who can market their expertise on a different platform? That ultimately might depend on how many readers click through for more information vs. those who prefer what has become a free, albeit superficial, news feed.
The ruthless violence directed at Charlie Hebdo is a flashpoint that brought out support for media ranging from one caring neighbor to the historic French crowd. The impact of technology, as with all evolution, will come to light far more slowly.