When I was on vacation, I got a Twitter email from a local contact. What, if anything, did I know about an article published by a professional journalist, appearing in an well-regarded, long-established publication, alleging malfeasance tied to some high ranking Philadelphia people? I was told the story had appeared very briefly online, then vanished. Because I was away, I didn't look into my source's email until a couple of days later. Google directed me to about five other websites that seemed to have referenced the story from its brief time on the Internet. Each link yield the same result.
"File not found."
This blog post is not about that story. It couldn't be -- because I was not allowed to read it. It may have been the most libelous piece of crap ever written, which never should have been published -- or maybe it was Pulitzer-worthy. or somewhere in between. In a perfect world, unless the article was factually in error, you and me and the citizens of the Philadelphia region should get an opportunity to learn more about what our leaders are apparently up to, and to make our own decisions about what's important, what's trivial, or what's unfair
This is an extreme case, but it's not an isolated incident. Philadelphia has a whole battalion of lawyers who don't worry for a split second about trampling the 1st Amendment to protect the interest of their deep, deep pocketed clients, who who know that in 2013 that a lot of news organizations (not this one, hopefully) are one big libel suit away from insolvency. "Prior restraint" are the dirty words that dare not speak there name in modern journalism, but it happens more than you realize -- here in Philadelphia, for sure.
And I think it's a broader, alarming trend. The list of what is illegal, socially unacceptable, or political suicidal to publish is growing every day. Look at the Obama administration's crusade against journalists at Fox News, at the AP, and elsewhere -- and the growing likelihood that one of the nation's best reporters, James Risen of the New York Times, will be going to jail for not revealing his sources.
That Rolling Stone cover with the glamour shot of "The Bomber" Dzhokher Tsarnaev? Although I would defend to my death their right to publish that article and that photo, I've come to agree that it was indeed pretty lame, especially since the article didn't really deliver the new insights into Tsarnaev's radicalization that it promised. I also agree that CVS, Walgreen's, etc., had a consitutional right not to sell it. But the incident still troubles me, one more greasy step down a slippery slope. The demand that certain issues -- like terrorism -- can only be covered in one proscribed way, creep me out, and they should creep you out too, regardless of your personal politics.
Every day, it seems like the ability of someone with a lot of power -- a government official, or a large corporation -- to decide what you can read, see, or hear grows, which the power of you as a citizen to make your own decision about what media you consume shrinks. The media -- weakened, financially and otherwise -- seems powerless to stop it, and so are you. At what point does the 1st Amendment also become a "file not found"?
UPDATE: Hey, journalism wins a round -- Ryan Briggs of the Citry Paper has now successfully published the strange story of the arrest and unarrest of Nicole Bright, the daughter of Philadelphia City Council President Darrell Clarke.
The Declaration has more on the backstory.