Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Was the Lie of "Consistent Leadership" Old Media's Last Stand?

By Gary Tilzer

"It is a function of government and politicians to invent philosophies to explain the demands of its own convenience." - Murray Kempton

A couple of weeks ago New York City’s term limits law was extended legislatively by the New York City Council and Mayor Bloomberg based upon the rationale that the City needs consistent leadership to get us through the coming economic crisis. The editorial boards of all the city’s daily newspapers made this exact case to their readers and our elected officials echoed their argument. Council Speaker Quinn said “given the level of economic tumult that exists, I have decided to change my position [opposing the extension of term limits] because I believe the potential of consistent leadership by this council and this mayor would be in the best interest of the city during these hard economic times."

But just eight days after the extension of term limits became law the City Council’s professed agenda of economic cooperation with the Mayor was all but abandoned. Expressing outrage at the Mayor’s fiscal stewardship, the Council blocked Mayor Bloomberg’s plan to rescind the City’s promised $400 homeowner property tax rebate without the Council's approval.

All of a sudden, the Council had forgotten about the Mayor’s economic expertise, which they asserted was so important to save our City from financial meltdown. What changed in eight days? Now that the City Council has successfully overruled two public refenda and the 89 percent of New Yorkers who opposed a change to the term limits law, they no longer have to worry about maintaining false pretenses to keep their jobs. Speaker Quinn, Bloomberg’s staunchest ally for extending term limits, and Councilman James Vacca, who was one of the 29 Council Members who voted “yes” on term limits, have already gone so far as to protest the Mayor’s plan to restructure the City’s senior centers to improve efficiency and save money.

Are the editorial boards of the City’s three dailies suddenly crying foul? Not a whisper.

Bloggers Got the Real Story When It Counted.

“It used to be that a handful of editors could decide what news was and what was not. They acted as sort of demigods. If they ran a story, it became news. If they ignored an event, it never happened. Today editors are losing this power. The Internet, for example, provides access to thousands of new sources that cover things an editor might ignore.”- Rupert Murdoch

Only the city’s bloggers like Your www.freepress.blogspot.com, Pardon Me For Asking, The Brooklyn Optimist, The Daily Gotham, Queens Crap, and Washington Square Park reported to their readers during the term limits debate that the Council’s argument for continuity of leadership to save the city’s economy was nothing more than public relations spin to cover the Council’s blatant power grab for an additional term in office. At the same time these citizen journalists across the City were reporting the real facts, the Mayor was meeting with the publishers of the three major dailies to coordinate a cover story for his support of extending term limits. Working in concert, the dailies provided the Mayor with the rationalization to disregard Bloomberg’s previous public statement that “it would be an absolute disgrace to go around the public will” to extend term limits.

Rafael Martínez-Alequín, publisher of Your Free Press.blogspot.com, wrote on his blog that it was a sad day for democracy when the Council passed the term limits extension. He openly expressed anger at those that voted for its passage, echoing the spirit of Former Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin. As Breslin said, “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns that exposed the wrongdoing in government.”

It is bloggers like Martínez-Alequín who are keeping journalism alive and vital in New York City. They are following in the footsteps of newspaper greats like Joseph Pulitzer of the long lost New York World, whose legendary name is ascribed to journalism’s greatest honor. Pulitzer’s passion-filled editorial pages were the true heart of the World. There he crusaded against the robber barons and oil and rail companies, exposed corrupt politicians and brutal policemen, and advocated for decent working hours and humane living conditions for the poor.

That’s just what Martínez-Alequín has dedicated his life to trying to do. And that’s just what has gotten Mayor Bloomberg so mad at him.

Norman Siegel Sues on Behalf of All Bloggers

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”
- Thomas Jefferson

New York City blogger journalist Rafael Martínez-Alequín and his lawyer, civil rights attorney Norman Siegel, recently filed a lawsuit to protect the First Amendment Constitutional Rights of bloggers in a case which has the potential to dramatically change journalism in New York City and the rest of the county. Siegel is challenging the New York City Police Department's policies for issuing press credentials. (For somewhat arcane reasons having to do with access to crime scenes, the NYPD issues all City media credentials.) Martínez-Alequín was a credentialed member of New York's working press since the early 1990s, but in 2007, his yearly press pass application was suddenly denied.

The NYPD officials decided that Martínez-Alequín and two other independent journalists weren't entitled to a press card because they didn't regularly cover breaking news for a professional news organization. The other two journalists, Robert E. Smith, publisher of The Guardian Chronicle and David Wallis, founder and CEO of Featurewell.com, are also plaintiffs in Siegel’s case.

Siegel’s lawsuit argues that the current system of issuing press passes amounts to privileging those who work for large corporations. Besides unfairly excluding citizen journalists like Martinez-Alequin, the problem with this system is that those who are credentialed often find themselves in situations that pose a certain conflict of interest between reporting the facts and not offending the corporate policies of the media giants for whom they work. As a result, in favoring corporate-employed reporters over citizen journalists and independent bloggers, the City’s press credentialing system effectively chooses to license primarily staid, cautious reporting - with a strong bent toward corporate coddling – over the dynamic, unadulterated articles of journalists like Martínez-Alequín.

Given the high stakes for citizen journalists like Martínez-Alequín, Siegel’s lawsuit is now seen by the blogging community as the epicenter of its battle against the old media for equal legitimacy of the New Media; the New Media being defined as essentially anything published online that is not affiliated with a major corporate news entity.

Martínez Alequín, an independent gadfly who has reported out of City Hall for the last two decades, is a modern-day Thomas Paine. Thomas Paine was one of the first journalists to use media as a weapon against the entrenched power structure controlled by the King of England. He is often credited as the journalist that propelled the American colonies to break free of British rule.

It now falls on the shoulders of Norman Siegel, who always seem to be around when the rights of New Yorkers need to be protected, to ensure that Internet bloggers in New York have the same rights as Thomas Paine. The city’s fast-emerging community of bloggers is quickly growing its readership simply by providing the type of truthful analysis that is hard to find in the City’s dailies. In so doing, New York’s blogosphere has established itself as the City’s premiere forum to debate controversial opinions, encourage participation in local politics, and further the belief that people should control their own lives.

“It’s always a simple matter to drag the people along whether it’s a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and the country is in great danger.” - Hermann Goring, at the Nuremberg trials

New York has always been at the epic center of the fight for a free press

John Peter Zenger was editor of the New York Weekly Journal in 1734 when he was jailed by British colonial authorities on charges of seditious libel. He had criticized the corrupt administration of New York's governor, William Cosby. Zenger's subsequent trial and acquittal is considered a landmark case in the history of freedom of the press, paving the way for the American Revolution.

On June 13, 1971, The New York Times began publishing the Pentagon Papers, a documentary history tracing the ultimately doomed involvement of the United States in a grinding war in the jungles and rice paddies of Southeast Asia. They demonstrated, among other things, that the Johnson Administration had systematically lied, not only to the public but also to Congress, about a subject of transcendent national interest and significance. The Government sought and won a court order restraining further publication after three articles had appeared. On June 30, 1971, the United States Supreme Court ruled, by a vote of 9 to 0, that publication could resume.

Paine and Zenger have now passed the Freedom of the Press touch to a new generation. The success of President Elect Obama’s Internet new technologies has given us the opportunity to democratize journalism like our founding fathers envisioned.

The Founding Father of Blogging: Thomas Paine

Siegel should start his case in court by filing a brief entitled, “Thomas Paine is the moral forefather of Internet blogging.” The example Paine set for the need of freedom of the press to ensure our Constitutional liberties, and the sacrifices he made to preserve the integrity of his work, is being resuscitated by a means that hadn't existed or even been imagined in his day - the blinking cursors, clacking keyboards, hissing modems, and bits and bytes of another revolution: the digital one. If Paine's legacy was seemingly derailed by the Nixon Administration’s FCC changes that have led to increased corporate ownership and consolidation of the media, the Internet has brought Paine’s vision back to life.

The problem of freedom in America is that of maintaining a competition of ideas and you do not do that by silencing” Max Lerner, former NY Post columnist

Early in this century when New York City had dozens of daily newspapers engaged in fierce competition it would not have been possible for elected officials to extend their terms in office for their own self interests. William Randolph Hearst’s conservative New York Journal, Dorothy Shifts’ liberal New York Post, the original New York Sun’s crusading muck breaking journalist and the other great passion filled paper of that time would make politicians scared of even dreaming about the scam they pulled on us.

It not just the term limits swindle. Lobbyist and the Robber Barons they work for have destroyed our economy and have left millions without proper medical care. Only on the Internet could you read in when the Glass- Steagall Act was repealed in 1999 of the dangers that action fueled by campaign donations, posed to the nation’s banking and housing industry. Only on the blogs could you hear the voice of opposition to Bush’s request to the Senate for permission to start the war in Iraq, during the congressional debate to grant him those rights.

Paine’s mark is now nearly invisible in the old corporate media culture, but his soul is woven through the Internet’s New Media, his fingerprints on every Web site, his voice in every online thread. That spirit was part of the political transformation he envisioned when he wrote about change 250 years before Barack Obama ever uttered the word. "We have it in our power to begin the world over again," said Paine. Through media, he believed, "we see with other eyes; we hear with other ears; and think with other thoughts, than those we formerly used.”

If we let the City of New York deny bloggers like Rafael Martínez-Alequín one of the most essential journalistic tools – a press pass – we consent to accept a media that is not truly free. Bloggers, citizen journalists, and all of the readers of their important work must band together and raise their voices in support of Norman Siegel and Rafael Martínez-Alequín. Their fight belongs to all of us who believe that citizen journalists can help change our government and make ours a more just society.

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