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Journalism's new world -- literally

Glenn Greenwald is a writer for the British newspaper the Guardian. He lives most of the time in Brazil. And he is a central figure in the sensational disclosures of covert surveillance programs conducted by the U.S. that have touched nations around the planet.

Welcome to the new global world -- quite literally -- of journalism that is challenging both the notions and definitions of a free press and who is a journalist.

The news media have a direct, obvious stake in how the issues are resolved. But now close behind are government officials roiled over what they see as questionable motives of Greenwald and other writers involved in the disclosure of classified government information about the National Security Agency programs.

And then there are First Amendment advocates and government advocates of a proposed national "shield law" protecting journalists and sources, who face a thorny problem of deciding in upcoming months who is covered by that law and who is not.

A little perspective: Acerbic media critic A.J. Liebling essentially was correct for his time when he wrote more than 60 years ago that "freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one."

For many years, the matter of "who is a journalist?" largely was settled along his observation. In practice, if not statute, the free press was seen as a print or broadcast news operation or as a publishing organization. "Journalism" was what those entities did, and those employed by them were "journalists."

There were some notable achievements -- and exceptions -- under that system. CBS News documentaries such as 1960's "Harvest of Shame," exposing to the nation the deplorable conditions endured by migrant workers, is an example. The press, of course, had a pivotal role in helping to expose scandal and cover-ups ranging from the Pentagon Papers to Watergate.

And there were those practitioners such as I.F. Stone, self-identified as both an independent investigative reporter and a political activist. In the spirit of colonial era "pamphleteers" and of later writers called muckrakers, I.F.Stone's Weekly, which reached its circulation peak in the 1960s, was investigative reporting tinged proudly with advocacy, challenging the notion good journalists simply were nonpartisan and objective.

Stone once wrote a journalist's duty was "to write the truth, to defend the weak against the strong, to fight for justice, to bring healing perspectives to bear on the terrible hates and fears of mankind in the hope of someday bringing about a world in which men will enjoy the differences of the human garden, instead of killing each other over them."

A formal review of journalism in the United States came in the mid-20th century, with the scholarly Hutchins Commission on Freedom of the Press. In 1947, it set out five goals for the news media, including "a truthful, comprehensive and intelligent account of the day's events, in context." The commission bolstered the idea a free press, with fairness and balance, provides the essential service of informing fellow citizens and contributing to self-governance -- essentially, providing the mechanism of democracy.

Re-reading the commission's work makes clear the generational bulwark it helped build for the news media's constitutional role as a watchdog on government and as a news-gathering mechanism and surrogate for the public.

But the commission also advanced a theory of social responsibility: Decisions about news should consider the good such reporting would bring to society. At the time, its members were worried a new generation of press moguls had little concern about social good, that there was little effective self-criticism in the press, combined with a declining ability for outsiders to be heard, in an increasingly powerful news and information media.

Enter the Internet -- and what now is shaping up as the next great "reset" in journalism.

The Web's empowerment of bloggers and others to reach mass audiences has no history of self-restraint or media "gatekeepers" reflected in the Hutchins' recommendations. It provides the ultimate in opportunity for individual engagement, reaction and response.

From aggregators to agitators, reporters to disclosers, from leakers to sources to whistleblowers -- news, information and comment on the Web simply flows. Participants in this grand, new global network range from media stalwarts such as the New York Times, to individual writers such as Greenwald -- who also is a lawyer and blogger -- to innovative news operations such as the Guardian with a new eye to the international. And then there is the self-described journalism-and-activist enterprise WikiLeaks, which along with millions of bloggers and tweeters, owes no particular allegiance to companies, geography or political boundaries.

In this new world, it might be the function of conveying news and information to others -- not institution, tradition, means or method -- is how journalists and journalism are best identified. Certainly, through our nation's history, that ultimately is what the First Amendment has protected.

And Independence Day 2013 is as good a point as any to mark the start of this revolutionary -- or at least evolutionary -- debate.

Gene Policinski is chief operating officer of the Newseum Institute, which includes

the First Amendment Center.

gpolicinski@newseum.org.