Web Journalism Turns a Corner

Last Monday, ACORN threatened them with prosecution. On Wednesday, ACORN called them purveyors of racist propaganda. By Friday, after Congress cut off its funding and President Obama criticized the organization, ACORN’s national chairman declared she was “outraged” and promised an internal investigation into behavior that two twentysomething free-lance reporters had exposed with only the help of a start-up Website, a video camera and their own initiative.

No matter where you stand politically, the journalistic coup James O’Keefe and Hannah Giles scored last week marks a watershed moment in the shift of enterprised, investigative reporting from Big Media to the Internet. While O’Keefe and Giles ultimately did get support from Andrew Breitbart and Fox News, much of it came after they had collected and posted their explosive footage on YouTube showing ACORN employees in at least four cities enthusiastically advising them on how to conceal human trafficking and child prostitution.

When you report news on which the President feels compelled to comment, and launches Congress into action, it becomes much more difficult to be categorized as amateur, illegitimate or second-tier, a viewpoint some legislators and courts take toward Websites, blogs and the individuals who write for them. ACORN was no small player. It enjoyed significant ties with Washington lawmakers was in-line to receive $8.5 billion in stimulus money. Now it’s reeling from a body blow that came from a completely unexpected source. They say one job of a free press is to afflict the comfortable. That’s certainly what happened here.

So, off the bat, the case for extending the shield laws and other legal safeguards that protect conventional print reporters and their sources to Web-based journalists just got stronger by several magnitudes. It’s going to get a lot harder for judges to jail bloggers who refuse to reveal sources and corporations to bring charges of “trade secret theft” against sue Web sites who break product news in advance of the PR handout. This, in itself, will be a welcome result.

But there is far more significance, too. The year began with debate in Congress on whether to extend bailout money to the major media companies, especially the large newspaper publishers who have over the past ten years have been steadily losing revenues and readers to the Web. The argument in favor of such bailouts was that a democracy needs a functioning free press to survive (although exactly how free a media industry could be when beholden to government is questionable).

But the argument assumes that only large publishers and networks have the resources to initiate and conduct aggressive investigative reporting. While that’s never been true (witness the number of Pulitzer Prizes that have gone to small newspapers over the years), the way the ACORN story broke drives it home.

While progressives may be dismayed that ACORN was the target, my hope is that they can see past the politics and acknowledge that what O’Keefe and Giles accomplished was a sterling example of the how the Internet decentralizes power. The Right has no monopoly on this. There’s nothing stopping anyone with the initiative and the passion to do something similar. You don’t need the infrastructure of a network or newspaper chain behind you.

In fact, these days with shrinking budgets and newsroom staffs, size may be a detriment to action. The unstated fact is this: for years there were enough questions surrounding ACORN’s practices and processes that any sustained inquiry was bound to uncover a big story, let alone the scandal that emerged. The New York Times, when it got around to catching up with the story last Wednesday, angled it a right wing hit job, but I’ll bet that there are plenty of reporters and editors there and at the other major dailies kicking themselves because they know they got scooped so badly.

And furthermore, this was accomplished without special regulations like network neutrality. Proponents fear that without neutrality rules, independent, non-mainstream voices would be drowned out by Big Media. Who’s got the loud voice now?

My hope is that policymakers see this for what it is: a major step in the maturation of new media. While the Right might be driving the maturation for now, I urge principled liberals to step back before joining a likely call for a government regulatory role in the Internet. ACORN was a major takedown, but it still has friends in high places. And I am concerned when I see current Democrat leaders such as Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid blaming conservative bloggers and Web sites for the growing popular opposition to their agenda. If the Democrat leadership falls short of its key goals—single-payer health care, cap-and-trade and greater wealth redistribution—they could decide punish opponents through a new fairness doctrine both for broadcast and Web sites, net neutrality (which actually would favor the big companies that consume most of the bandwidth) and newspaper bailouts, especially those who whose editorial slant matches their own.

That would be unfortunate for everyone who values free expression. Ruling political parties have a way of changing. I no more want left-wing liberals nor right-wing conservatives adjudicating the media business in this country. The mainstream media may have left a vacuum for investigative reporting, but it looks like the Web is stepping up to fill it. We all knew the Web was going to be transformative. Let’s all remember that, step back and allow it to work.