Four incidents of late challenge the very notion of journalism. Michael Arrington, Henry Blodget, Wikileaks, and TV’s Irene coverage each in their own way raise the question: What is journalism? And does it matter?
When Michael Arrington announced that he was starting an investment fund at Aol with capital from other VCs, Kara Swisher went after him for violating canons of journalism. Just one thing: Arrington rejects the title of journalist. At his Disrupt conference, I tried to get him to take on the mantle and alter it. But he sees nothing to aspire to there.
In Swisher’s case, one has to concede — as she does — the irony in riding the journalistic high horse from within News Corp., which is rapidly becoming journalism’s Death Valley. I asked her on Twitter what she had written about hackgate and she responded at length with multiple links in this thread. She has written about it and has been, as she says, more vocal than other Journal journalists. That’s what troubles me. I would have hoped that WSJ reporters and editors as a group would have spoken out against not only hackgate but also their paper’s anemic coverage of it and its humiliating editorial justification of its owners. Where are their standards?
What are the standards? Arrington, remember, started TechCrunch not as a journalistic venture but instead to gather and share information about startups and to promote himself as an investor. He is returning to his roots. Along the way, he created a media entity of value. I noted on Google+ that The New York Times Company invests in startups (including one where I’m a partner, Daylife) and starts them and still covers them. It will say it maintains a wall. Arrington, not so much. Neither church nor state, he’s not trying to be a journalist. He’s trying to get information. He does it well. He has covered startups better than any big paper; that’s why WashingtonPost.com publishes TechCrunch posts. Given his links to startups and investment, can we trust him? That’s what Swisher’s trying to make us ask.
Now look at Henry Bodget, another businessperson who creates a media enterprise around gathering and sharing information — which we journalists define as journalism … if it’s done to our standards. Jay Rosen challenges Blodget for using confidential sources in this thread: “I hate the way @BusinessInsider uses anonymity.” But Blodget has an answer: “Sorry, Jay. Sometimes (often) it’s the only way to get the real info…. In business, anyone who goes on the record has agenda.” Felix Salmon counters: “Anyone who goes OFF record has an agenda. And those guys are more likely to lie. I trust on-the-record more.” Blodget: “Then you’ve clearly never worked in business. On record is only propaganda.”
Note cultures clashing. The journalism tribe says that confidential sources and the journalists who use them are not to be trusted. I agree that journalists overuse them. That’s not reporting to our standards. But the deal-makers disagree. Blodget says, “My goal is to get to the truth.” Isn’t that journalists’ goal, too? How can he get there by a different route? Is that journalism? Who’s to say? The journalists? Perhaps not.
Now look at TV coverage of Irene. Complaints about it have been miscast as “overhyping” the storm. The storm was severe. My problem was instead the over-exploitation and under-reporting of the storm. They had “reporters” as cast members standing thigh-deep in the surf or even being covered in sewage not to impart information, not to get to the truth, but to entertain. How much better it would have been if even a few of them had been dispatched north the center of their universe, New York, to report the devastation that would come there. My problem with the coverage is that all it did was take information already available to us all and repeat it endlessly and theatrically, adding no value.
Wikileaks saw, for a bit, the ability of journalism to add value to the flow of information. Julian Assange went to the Guardian, The Times, and Der Spiegel to get their help redacting leaks to make their revelation — in the view of these participants — responsible; to add context and facts; to promote the leaks and get them noticed. Now these journalistic organizations are disavowing Assange as he releases unredacted cables and Assange is disavowing the Guardian for publishing what it thought was a dead password to the files (though who was responsible for the entire file being available is another question). Assange has called himself a journalist; now the journalists are rejecting him. They say he’s violating their standards, though there is no rule I know of that would cover these eventualities, except perhaps the Hippocratic Oath: Do no harm.
What is journalism, then? I define it broadly — some would say too broadly, but I am always afraid my umbrella is not broad enough. I say that journalism helps a community organize its knowledge so it can better organize itself. I say that a community can now share its information without us, so we journalists must ask how we add value to that exchange. I use Andy Carvin as a model of adding value through vetting, questioning, challenging, and giving context and attention to the end-to-end, witness-to-world flow that already goes on without him. But he violates plenty of rules, passing on information before it is known to be true — so we can get closer to what is true.
What is journalism, really? Does it matter? I’ve long said — ever since I rejected my own use of the term “citizen journalist” — that is a mistake to define journalism by who does it, as anyone can commit an act of journalism. Anyone can share information. By that definition, Arrington and certainly Blodget are committing acts of journalism as they gather and share information quite effectively. TV news is less effective. Wikileaks is perhaps too effective.
So what the hell is journalism? Dave Winer says it doesn’t matter. “Journalism itself is becoming obsolete,” he argues well. Mathew Ingram recasts what Winer says, asking whether journalism is obsolete because anyone can do it.
In a wonderful email thread among the members of Journal Register’s advisory board (of which I am privileged to be a member), we debated about the Washington Post’s new social rules. Jay Rosen said, in the kind of essential abstraction I try to learn from him, that “the subtext of all such rule sets: ‘We’re in charge. Really…We are!'” Is that what journalists are doing when they set social rules or claim that Arrington or Blodget or Wikileaks violate journalistic rules (or when I claim that TV news does)? The rule-setters would argue that rules define what they do. Rules try to protect one from the consequences of bad judgment. Those subject to rules — or those we journalists would like to subject to them — would say that rules are a way to exercise power and sometimes to exclude. In the thread, I recalled the worst and best of my time at Time Inc., when I was saved not by rules but by one editor’s integrity, by the principles she maintained.
As I was trying to think through this post — a process obviously not over — I tweeted: “Information, more and more, comes from nonjournalists who’ve not signed the pledge.” To which Chris Tolles of Topix replied: “This is key. Journalism no longer the gatekeeper. Journalists’ protests about this are guild protectionism.” There’s the peril of setting rules: They are, in so many senses of the word, limiting.
Journalism is not defined by who does it and who does it does not define journalism.
So what is journalism, damnit?
I don’t know.
I know that people can exchange information and knowledge easier than ever. I believe there is a need for someone to add value to that exchange. I hope that “someone” can be journalists who will use precious resources only to bring value. I pray their efforts can be sustainable (that is, that they can eat; that’s why I do what I do in entrepreneurial journalism). But I think we need to question — not reject, but reconsider — every assumption: what journalism is, who does it, how they add value, how they build and maintain trust, their business models. I am coming to wonder whether we should even reconsider the word journalism, as it carries more baggage than a Dreamliner. These are the questions I see raised by Arrington, Blodget, et al. Do they matter? You tell me.
: YET MORE: Jay Rosen, as I’d hoped, abstracted the discussion including his abstraction. In the comments, he write: “The users don’t care about “journalism” all that much. That’s the name the producers of it have for what they do. News, information, “what’s happening,” accountability, staying in touch, alert system, “just tell me what I need to know…” Yes. The users care about those things. Journalism? Not so much.”
Right. The question of what is and isn’t journalism is one that journalists ask. It has nothing to do with the questions the public asks. And the journalist’s job, supposedly, is to answer the public’s questions. Disconnect, eh?
: And in the also-lively discussion on this post at Google+, David Sass has an interesting perspective:
I submit journalism was never more more than a academic concept – like Plato’s forms – that never really existed except as a vague concept in poly-sci textbooks. The reality is that I receive information from many sources – from direct observation, from friends, from entertainment, from politicians, from government, from media, from pundits/propagandist. Journalism is the naive belief that I should trust any one of these sources more or less than another. . . Information is not to be trusted from ANY source. To believe otherwise is to abdicate your individual responsibility to seek the truth.