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.