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As 'new media' proliferate, does government have a role?

The Federal Trade Commission is holding hearings on whether government should have any regulatory role as blogs and web-only news sites proliferate. It's a red flag for many journalists.

By Staff writer / June 5, 2010

Federal Trade Commission headquarters in Washington. The FTC is holding a series of hearings examining whether government should have any role as blogs and web-only news sites proliferate.

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When former Washington Post reporter Sarah Cohen appeared at a recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC), hearing on the role of government in modern journalism, she admits to being nervous.

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“I’d never testified at one before and I also didn’t know whether they would like what I had to say,” says the Duke University journalism professor.

That tension between government and the so-called fourth estate, or the news media, is at the heart of a mounting war of words in the blogosphere as well as in print and broadcast over when, where, why and how lawmakers should interact – some say meddle – with today’s swiftly changing news environment.

As traditional print and broadcast outlets have continued to dwindle at historic rates and so-called “new media” such as blogs and web-only news sites proliferate, the FTC has convened a task force on how government “can help,” with a series of public input meetings, ending June 15. At the same time, in May, Michigan Senator Bruce Patterson introduced a bill to create a state registry for journalists, which he hopes would give the public a means for verifying reporter’s qualifications and credentials.

The outcry over both has been swift and pointed.

Government involvement a 'chilling effect'?

“A government agency even having the discussion has a chilling effect,” says Jason Stverak, president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, adding that the foundation of the nation’s democracy rests on the notion of a watchdog press, unregulated by the very institutions it is expected to monitor.

He dubs any official list vouching for a reporter’s “moral character,” as the Michigan law would, nothing less than an attempt to disenfranchise a new class of online citizen journalists who lack official affiliations.

Adds Villanova University media expert, Leonard Shyles, “I’m not interested in having a state board decide who’s accurate. Let the marketplace decide, because I’m going to believe Joe Schmoe after I corroborate his story thru the mosaic of stories that are out there on the Internet now, not because a government agency says I should.”

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