The arrival of the Apple iPad and the news media's infatuation with it because of its potential as a "reader" device is taking us down a very dangerous path - and, as is the case in many of society's ironic situations, it took a news cartoonist to raise some awareness.
Mark Fiore, who won a Pulitzer Prize this week as an online-only cartoonist, had his iPhone app rejected back in December because it included cartoons that "ridiculed public figures." Umm, hello. That's what news cartoonists do. They use satirical illustrations to spark debate over current events - and that sometimes involves mocking celebrities, companies (and their products) and government officials, especially sitting presidents.
But Apple's license agreement with app developers is pretty clear. The company can reject apps that contain "objectionable" content and specifically cites obscene, pornographic or defamatory materials as examples. The definition of "objectionable," of course, is at Apple's discretion.
What happens if Apple feels that an extremist news outlet - let's use a radical political blog as an example (you fill in the blank) - pushes the boundaries of its "journalism" to a point where its content becomes "objectionable?" Should Apple reject or pull that app? It's certainly within Apple's rights, spelled out right there in the license agreement.
One might argue that Apple is violating the first amendment rights of the content creator - but that's not really what's happening here, is it? After all, that content is still available on the Internet itself so, if you really want it, you can find it somewhere else. Apple just doesn't want you reading it while you're inside its world.
You know, just like China.
It's only fair at this point to note that, earlier today, Steve Jobs himself wrote in an email that Apple made a mistake when it rejected Fiore's app, according to a New York Times report, and that the company has asked Fiore to resubmit it. Jobs' email reportedly was brief, only saying "This was a mistake that's being fixed." It doesn't appear that Jobs specified why it was a mistake. Is it because Fiore won the Pulitzer? The NYT did call Apple's reconsideration of the app a "digital-age perk of winning a Pulitzer Prize." But let's not call Apple alone to the mat on this one.
The news media as a whole - myself included - needs to take a step back and look into the mirror for a moment, as well. Dan Gillmor, a former colleague from my Mercury News days, posed some thought-provoking questions in a blog post last week, asking the New York Times specifically about the perceived conflict of interest that comes with being both a journalism outlet that's covering one of the biggest companies on the globe and also a business that is desperately seeking new models for distributing its content, notably apps for the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch.
Gillmor says that he's asked the newspaper for some clarification but has yet to receive an answer. From his post:
Does Apple, which maintains control over what iPad apps are made available, have the unilateral right to remove these journalism organizations’ news apps if the apps deliver information to audiences that Apple considers unacceptable for any reason? No one has answered the question. I take the silence on this to mean that the answer is Yes, given the evidence of earlier Apple behavior plus the publication of an iPad application-developer agreement obtained by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a document that revealed control-freakery by Apple on a stunning level. Now, the news organizations’ silence could also mean only that they’re abiding by a key element of that control: a requirement in the app-developer agreement (the one we’ve seen, anyway) to say nothing publicly about the specifics of these dealings with Apple. Perhaps — and I hope this is true — they have special dispensation from Apple to provide the journalism they deem fit for their audiences with no interference allowed. If so, they should say so.
Journalism, an industry that's already been shaken up and tossed around by the mainstream adoption of the Internet, is finding itself at another crossroads. The Columbia Journalism Review, in a blog post, has called on the news media to yank its apps in protest unless Apple "explicitly gives the press complete control over its ability to publish what it sees fit..."
I would add that a definition of "news media" be included with something like this. From the CJRs post:
Look, let’s face it. The iPad is the most exciting opportunity for the media in many years. But if the press is ceding gatekeeper status, even if it’s only nominally, over its speech, then it is making a dangerous mistake... The press has got to step back and think about the broad implications of this. It would never let the government have such power over its right to publish. It shouldn’t let any corporation have it, either.
It's important to note that, traditionally, newsroom operations have been kept at arm's length from the business and advertising sides of the news company to avoid appearances of conflicts of interest on the news pages. In some cases, the potential for conflict was obvious - and avoided at all costs. But in other instances, the fine line hasn't always been so evident.
That's where we are today, faced with one of those fine lines that cannot be ignored. Thankfully, as I see the flood of press coverage about this, I'm relieved that journalists haven't pushed away from this story just to appease the front office - or Apple.