Google Chairman Eric Schmidt told a crowd of Washington journalists Thursday night that free speech was messy, disorganized, and fundamental to a Democracy that keeps the powerful honest. He pledged that his company stood with those journalists. "I'm here to tell you we stand with you," he said, but also said there "will never be a perfect way to combat censorship or privacy violations at home or abroad, but we're going to do our part. "
Schmidt said transparency was the key to protecting the First Amendment, and asked why every government meeting should not be streamed in real time to the world. "We've got the cameras, we've got the bandwidth, we've got the Internet and, believe me, we've got the viewers," he said.
Schmidt was accepting, on behalf of Google, the Radio-Television News Directors Association First Amendment Leadership award for a business that has "upheld the highest standards of journalism and made a significant contribution to First Amendment Freedoms."
Invoking the kind of information-aggregating power that has drawn some criticism of Google, Schmidt added: "If we knew what every part of our government, and every other part of every other government was doing, how much more we would know not just about what was happening, but we would be able to figure out what would happen."
The Internet "routes around censorship," he said. "The power of expression, the power in people's hands, is a force that traditional government control and censorship have never seen before."
He also suggested publishing the mark-ups for every bill in Congress "from start to finish." He said it would be easy to do it and didn't know why it hadn't been done. "Let's do it," he said.
Schmidt gave a tacit response to the critics of Google's goal of organizing and making accessible all the world's information. "We are driving control freaks, and governments and bureaucrats crazy," he said, "and it's a good thing," a line that drew applause from the journalist crowd.
But Schmidt also suggested there was a governor on potential information overload from all the communications and connectedness of the Internet. "It is important to know where the off button is," he said, "to decide how much of this you want to participate."
In presenting the award, news vet Judy Woodruff pointed out that it was a significant moment in the history of the Radio-Television News Directors Association since it was the first time that the organization had honored a company that did business, not over the airwaves or in print, but on the Internet, which was where she suggested the future action in journalism would be, calling Google "an organization that all of us in this room may someday be working for."
The room included the likes of Sam Donaldson, Charles Gibson, Cokie Roberts, several legislators and at least one FCC commissioner. Roberts, also an honoree, gave Google a shout out, calling it a "godsend" when she was researching her latest book.
Woodruff added: "If you haven't already, I know you are going to want to stop by and pay respects to the gentleman I will be introducing." Woodruff pointed out that in 2001, a PEW survey found 13% of respondents got their national and international news from the Internet. Today that number is 40%, and almost 60% among the under-30 crowd. More people get their news from the net than newspapers she added. But she also said that there is still, make that "more than ever," a need for traditional journalism "guided by professional ethics and through hard-hitting research."
Schmidt agreed, saying "we need to strengthen all forms of communication and expression. We need the independent voice of newspapers, in particular the investigative reporting they do so well."