This vignette in Bill Keller’s speech for The Guardian last week caught my eye:
President Kennedy was furious at [David] Halberstam’s aggressive reporting from
the battlefields of Vietnam, and he complained to the publisher at the
time, Punch Sulzberger, the father of our current publisher. Maybe, the
president suggested, the Times should send Mr Halberstam to London or
Paris. Punch Sulzberger was pretty new in the job, and had never
encountered an angry president before, but he firmly declined. Then,
and this is the part I love, when he got back to the office Punch sent
Halberstam instructions to cancel his upcoming vacation. The publisher
didn’t want the White House to see Halberstam heading for the airport
and get the idea that the Times was giving in.
It’s a wonderful story meant to rally the troops — to show the power
of a financially healthy, civic-minded Times Company — the Times of New York Times
Co. v. Sullivan and New York Times Co. v. United States, that as Keller says, is our "institutional bulwark against powerful forces that would tame or silence us."
There’s only one problem with this vignette today. When I think of the
company that’s really sticking it in the eye of the powerful, fighting
today’s Sullivan, I don’t think of the NYT. I think of Google.
Yes, as Keller points out, The Times is still fighting the Bush
Administration for its disclosure in 2005 of National Security Agency
wiretapping. That is a huge, important battle, but to me it feels more
abstract than than the battles Google is fighting.
Google is the one pushing for net neutrality so that 9Neighbors can germinate without
getting squashed by the Comcast Bundle. Google is the one fighting to
make sure Verizon doesn’t control the information I read and write
from my mobile devices.
Google is no replacement for newspapers. Their record in China is
spotty, and they certainly aren’t doing the critical dirty work of FOIA
requests and lawsuits that are still routine at places like the News-Press in Forth Myers, Fla.
That said, old-liners like Keller need to respect Google’s values.
Google is being built on precisely the same set of assumptions that The
Times was built on — that access to information makes our society
The difference is only in scale: The Times publishes information
itself, while Google enables everybody to publish information.