Actor, Uber investor, and hair-trigger tweeter Ashton Kutcher complained this morning about how it’s unfair that journalists “should be exempt from ridicule and judgement and probing.” 

Not surprisingly, the reaction to his rather bizarre argument was a mix of shock, disdain, and mocking. But given his celebrity status, there seemed to be at least as many people who agreed with Kutcher as disagreed.

So rather than throw gasoline on a political dogfight that just leaves everyone more convinced on their own original arguments, I think it’s a good time to calmly explain why attacking journalists is a bad idea — starting with the presumption that Kutcher’s argument is reasonable.

Background

For a bit of history, yesterday Uber got in hot water after one of its executives hinted that journalists who are critical of large companies should be subject to the same kind of opposition research that fuels political campaign attack ads. Indeed, the Uber exec hinted that it was OK to dig up dirt on a journalist’s personal lives and those of their family.

Not surprisingly, soon after, both the executive and CEO Travis Kalanick personally apologized to the journalist in question, PandoDaily.com editor Sarah Lacy. Kutcher seemed to think this apology was misguided.

A lesson on the First Amendment

OK, let’s tackle his issues one by one:

“What is so wrong about digging up dirt on shady journalist [sic]?”

No one ever made the (credible) argument that Lacy is a “shady” journalist. It’s true that Lacy has publicly lambasted Uber for having an “asshole culture” that’s overtly sexist toward women. But Lacy never went snooping for whether someone in Kalanick’s family has a drug problem or spied on the dating life of its executives. She’s kept all her arguments in the public square.

Digging up dirt on anyone drags us all into a dark place that isn’t healthy for a civil democracy.

“We are all public figures now!” Why should journalists be treated differently than companies? 

For over 200 years, America has recognized that journalists should be given a special role in society. It’s in the very first amendment to the Constitution. The ever-quotable Thomas Jefferson said:

“The basis of our governments being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” 

In nearly all cases, journalism is much like David standing against Goliath. Journalists don’t have billions of dollars. We don’t have standing armies. All we have is a pen (or a keyboard). It’s a risky occupation to constantly fight the powerful for advancing the ideas of a fair and just world. 

Deterring journalists from speaking, or instilling fear in those who would occupy the profession, is a strike against the First Amendment. To the extent that a journalist risks their reputation for the cause of an informed society, our nation grants them an equal degree of deference. 

Some journalists are just out for ratings. Why should we respect them?

It’s true. Too often journalists fall prey to the temptation of high ratings at the expense of serving the public. When they do — boy, oh, boy — do they deserve criticism. Not personally, but professionally. Jon Stewart showed everyone how to attack a pundit when he took down the hosts on Crossfire:

If a big bad company thinks that bloggers are sensationalist, then by all means, call them on their hypocrisy. Cry from the Twitter mountaintops that they are attention-seeking pundits failing their sacred public duty. But don’t dig up dirt on them or their families. That’s not why we have a First Amendment, and it’s not why we have a free press.

Keep it civil. Keep it transparent. Keep it substantive.