In the gig economy, who protects journalist bloggers?

by Chris on December 30, 2009

In the gig economy, who protects journalist bloggers? The problems raised by Christopher Elliott’s subpoena from the TSA

As newspapers and other mainstream media outlets dismantle their ranks, many pundits have wondered who will be society’s new watchdog.

Some foresee the rise of a citizen journalism brigade emerging through the already robust blogosphere. Others, such as Wired magazine Editor in Chief Chris Anderson, believe that reporting will become more of a hobby than a profession. Tina Brown of Daily Beast envisions a gig economy taking place, where companies including the media are made up of freelancers who work several jobs to make a living.

But just who protects this new class of journalist when the shit hits the fan? That’s the situation being faced by Christopher Elliott, a prominent travel writer, whose crackerjack reporting on the changes in TSA regulations this weekend resulted in a government subpoena served at his door this evening.

Elliott, also known as the Travel Troubleshooter, is no hobbyist. He’s worked for mainstream outlets such as USA TODAY and the New York Times. Currently, he’s the poster child for gig economy success, writing columns for National Geographic and MSNBC, as well as a Tribune syndicated column that appears in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. He’s well-known, well-liked and well-respected, and his consumer-advocacy columns often drive the conversation in the travel world.  

Elliott’s also a blogger, rising at 5:30 a.m. to write directly to his readers. So this weekend, when the foiled Christmas Day terrorist bombing spurred conflicting stories about new TSA regulations, people came to him on Twitter, Facebook and his blog, asking for clarity. He did what any beat reporter would do: He worked his sources to find out what was going on. And one of them gave him the equivalent of an investigative Holy Grail – a leaked document spelling out all of the TSA’s suggested procedures.

It was a mighty scoop, and Elliott immediately posted it on his blog. His tweets were of the calming sort. “Relax,” he wrote on Twitter. “It’s only for inbound international flights.” Controversy died down – until Special Agent Robert Flaherty arrived at his house with a subpoena from the Department of Homeland Security that asked Elliott to give up his source.

(UPDATE: Another well-respected aviation blogger, Steven Frischling of Flying With Fish, also posted the leaked document. He also received a visit from federal agents last night, asking him to give up his source. And this morning, Dennis Schaal at TNooz reports, federal agents returned and took Frischling’s computer’s hard drive).

 So now Elliott faces a dilemma. If he protects his source and disobeys the subpoena, he risks fines and going to jail. Or he could give up the name, knowing that he’s putting someone’s job in jeopardy. Either way, he faces legal bills that could quickly spiral out of control.

In newsrooms, staff journalists can easily take door number 1, as most media organizations have savvy First Amendment lawyers who quash subpoenas for sources, phone records and notebooks. With a leaked document as sensitive as a TSA memo after a terrorist attack, top editors would have probably involved lawyers before publishing, just to make sure legal arguments were sound. Meetings would have been called, hand wringing would have ensued – even if the same decision was made.

But no staff journalist would be as individually exposed to government pressure and financial pressure as Elliott is right now.

So is this what the  profession is going to face going forward? And if so, how will hard-hitting journalism take place if bloggers are afraid to publish sensitive information? Should a legal defense fund be created for journalist bloggers? Or should a non-profit organization such as the Poynter Institute step in and support bloggers when they run into problems? After all, isn’t this the type of journalism that society still wants? And that those of us in the profession were trained to deliver?

Elliott’s situation proves one thing: In the gig economy, you can hustle all you want. But ultimately, you’re on your own – and for a watchdog freelancer, that can be a cold place indeed.

| Chris Gray Faust is a veteran journalist, travel expert, social media butterfly - and editrix of this site. Like what you read? Check out her writing, editing and social media services.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Kat December 30, 2009 at 1:59 am

Bloggers probably should be looking into what insurance they can purchase to help offset legal costs when this sort of thing occurs… the handwriting for this has been on the wall if you look at the increasing libel lawsuits facing various bloggers, big and small, in the last year. The financial stress only compounds the pressure they are under standing alone in a spotlight, instead of protected by the umbrella of a paper or magazine.

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summerof67 January 4, 2010 at 9:25 am

Kat – great idea, though there are many bloggers out there who are not paid and who can barely afford their Internet connections, let along the cost of an insurance policy. Just ask Arianna Huffington. Better to have a public defender program that is financed by MSM or channeled through the ACLU. It would probably not be able to cover all journalists all the time, but it would be able to handle enough cases the set precedents. It would be a start at least. Thanks.

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Don Nadeau December 30, 2009 at 8:09 am

I totally agree with Kat above.

Also see @flywithfish blog post: http://bit.ly/7ToIsD He received a visit the same evening.

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Chris December 30, 2009 at 8:18 am

Don – Thanks for adding Steven (Flying with Fish). I updated the post to include him.

Kat – I’m not sure if insurance like that is available. I’m going to research it, though.

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Claire Walter December 30, 2009 at 10:20 am

Add me to the travel journalists/bloggers supporting Chris Elliott and Steve Fischling. See http://travel-babel.blogspot.com/2009/12/department-of-homeland-security.html — and I cited and linked to your commentary as well to their reports.

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David Parker Brown December 30, 2009 at 11:42 am

This is BEYOND crazy and inappropriate. Thank you for writing on this. I hope this story gets picked up and out there. Bloggers should have the same rights as other media and the TSA is not helping out their image!

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Maria December 30, 2009 at 11:50 am

Someone suggested insurance…

I’m not a journalist, but I am a writer and a blogger. I know from doing my homework that it’s extremely difficult (or expensive) for writers to get insurance that will cover them from libel and legal fees stemming from what they write. Too risky. And if you mention the word “blogger” when applying, you’ll likely scare the insurance broker away.

I like the idea of the Poynter Institute helping out. It would certainly make an annual membership fee worthwhile.

But someone MUST protect serious freelance journalists who are acting in good faith to report news and FACTS. As traditional publishing and journalism fades, someone must step in to do the same job. If freelance journalists are afraid to report findings to the public because of backlash from the government or others trying to keep information private, there will soon be no real journalism at all.

Best wishes to Christopher and Steven.

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brian December 30, 2009 at 12:36 pm

The leaker thought he/she was doing the right thing by giving Chris the documents but it will make bloggers and journalists pause before posting anything up without having a legal fund in place.

Chris may win the battle, but the TSA may win the war by making honest journalists and bloggers HESITATE.

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soultravelers3 December 30, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Thanks for posting this. Shocking! My heart goes out to Chris and Steven and their families. You bring up important questions and society needs good and *free* watchdogs now more than ever!

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Mary D'Ambrosio December 31, 2009 at 9:42 am

Encouraging the creation of a legal and libel insurance fund independent writers and editors could buy into with their Poynter, ASJA or Mediabistro memberships is the way to go. (Libel/legal insurance exists but, as Maria says, it’s expensive and rare.) A fund would help everyone: protect independent journalists, give media organizations a membership incentive to offer and create a new market for insurers. So few legal actions against journalists succeed that insurers ought to find this lucrative enough.

I hope some savvy media lawyer steps forward to represent these two bloggers pro bono – and that the rest of us treat this case as a wake-up call.

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Claudia Copquin December 31, 2009 at 10:35 am

I am no fan of the TSA, but I can see that there might be national security issues at hand by posting that memo. Having said that, I wonder what the New York Times would have done with it…Also, this issue might initiate dialogue within the Society of Professional Journalists. Couldn’t they protect their blogger/journalist members?

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Virginia Postrel December 31, 2009 at 7:47 pm

We need an nonprofit that can coordinate pro bono legal representation for people in these situations. I’m sure there are plenty of lawyers who would find these cases interesting and worth some of their pro bono time.

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Mary Mitchell January 2, 2010 at 8:22 am

Add me to those supporting Elliott. and company I worked for Travel Weekly as a freelancer for 14 years and as a general freelancer for longer–but with no legal problems. I was lucky.

Some of the professional writers groups used to offer liability insurance. One thing’s for certain, any writer needs an umbrella insurance policy. That’s the easy part. The hard part is shelling out money for legal fees.

These kinds of issues seem to separate the pros and the amateurs, but a lawsuit can happen to anyone.

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summerof67 January 4, 2010 at 9:30 am

A program that would include the Poynter, ASJA, SPJ and the ACLU would be the way to go – a “public defender” program, IMHO. Someone should post it to Bob Steele or Roy Peter Clark at Poynter, who would most likely be able to get something going. Thanks.

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Don Nadeau December 30, 2009 at 8:11 am

That should be @flyingwithfish above. Sorry!

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Skipperrote January 1, 2010 at 12:48 pm

I’m a retired freelancer who left journalism early enough to avoid all these dilemmas cited by the emails on this blog. First, the narrow-visioned folks who say that travel writers support the two guys who received TSA supoenae need to get over themselves. The basic fear is that the feds, and soon after that, the state and local authorities will be grabbing supoenae to harrass and censor all kinds of news/commentary publication, not just writings about cute hotels and narrow airline seats. In one sense, the news media (including freelancers) has itself to blame for this dilemma because major news outlets, print, audio, video, and online, love to hyperize terror or anything that hints of it. Like today’s story of a Christmas ornament causing a passenger jet to be diverted. The reading public gets scared and the bureaucrats under Napolitano’s all-knowing view issue idea after wacky idea after wacky idea. They haven’t ordered undies taken off yet, but give them time. The media, especially the video types, need to tone down their reporting styles, cease their hyperventilating and opinionating about things over which they know little. Why a CNN fill-in anchor would interview a Time national security reporter as the sole source to comment on the Yemen-Detroit bomb failure escapes me, but journalists are not sources by themselves. But there I go.
The main point here is how do freelancers cover themselves against government supoenae and other legal attacks. It would seem to me that not only Poynter, but other journalistic organizations should form buying pools through which non-employed (aka freelance) journalists could buy legal insurance, which would likely be very expensive. There must be standards that will eliminate many self-styled citizen journalists, many of who merely steal others’ work and put it forth as their own in the form of both reported stories and commentaries. There has been talk among professional journalists lately of how such folk act as filters for the general public; such has been the case for more than a hundred years, and so it should be. Every person with a digital camera and a laptop computer with access to a website should not be construed as a ‘journalist’.
The current situation, with its loss of thousands of jobs and media outlets, and dimiishing access to free media for the public, portends a blackening future. The TSA is merely the first, it will be accompanied by other government bodies that will do their best to clamp controls and censorship over the traditionally strong American First Amendment. There needs to be a new formula for future American journalism and its participants, and so called citizen journalism, IMHO, is not the best path to that new career path. Thanks for reading.

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