Newsman and Blogboy

Newsman and Blogboy
: I spent the end of last week at an Aspen Institute session on whether and how journalists should be involved in public policy. (I wasn’t important enough to be invited on my own; I was subbing for someone more important who generously got me included; in any case, I was glad to enjoy the company, the conversation, and the surroundings.)

[For my report, click on the “more” link…]

I found myself in an odd position: Here I’ve been in the news business for more than 30 years (yow), yet I felt like a bit of an outsider. That is, I wasn’t really there as Newsman; I was there as Blogboy. And it’s as Blogboy that I report back to you, my editors, on the meeting.

I have been infected with this populist virus; it has taken over my brain and career; and now I’m trying to infect others. But I found that I enjoyed the role of blog evangelist; you should try it at any opportunity. The group had just the range of perspective you’d expect: Some are skeptical about this phenom; some are hungrily curious; some are already enthusiastic; all know there’s something worthy of attention here.

At the start, the group was asked the kind of question that is often asked in gatherings such as this: Who is a journalist? You’d like how the conversation turned. As someone said, journalism is a “what,” not a “who.” Journalism is about news, information, and viewpoints. Journalism is about standards. But journalism is not about accreditation via a journalist’s paycheck. It’s an inclusive attitude. Not what you may expect from the pros, eh?

When talk turned to diversity — as it often does at such media confabs — I found myself arguing in favor of the idea that the Internet, and especially the weblog movement, are the best new source of diversity media can find. When a news organization wants to find new and diverse news, information, voices, and viewpoints from its own backyard or from elsewhere — as, in fact, they all struggle to do — there’s a faster, easier, perhaps more effective way of doing this than only having to hire those voices: You can go out and read them online. Quote them; link to them; make them stars. We the pros have owned the printing presses for centuries; now we the people own them and it’s our turn to speak and be heard.

Somebody there challenged me to do more of this myself and, in fact, the meeting gave me some new ideas for using weblogs locally to involve new ethnic and linguistic constituencies.

The real point of the meeting was for these leaders in journalism to wrestle with the question of whether journalists should be involved in public policy. If you’d been there, you’d surely have been impressed with the effort, even agony, that these people go to when debating such questions. They worry about issues of ethics, credibility, labor and about practical matters of setting and maintaining standards. The group came to consensus that there is a range of proper and improper involvement: On one end, if a matter of policy directly affects the public’s right to know (e.g., the passing of an official secrets act), then it is the right and perhaps responsibility of journalists to speak up and even to lobby. On the other end, if a matter of policy is controversial (say, globalization), then it is not right for journalists to take a stance on an issue they are covering. Of course, there’s much in the middle. I’m unfairly summarizing a lot of discussion in a few sentences; the institute will issue a paper on the topic soon.

Amid all the blather we hear about “media bias,” note that these professionals take hyperseriously their responsibility to report with fairness, balance, and accuracy and without bias. You can criticize them all you want on whether they succeed. But too often, the critics forget that they do try. One cannot dismiss this effort easily.

On the other hand, in this era of increasing opinion and perspective in the news — this era of FoxNews, of an international audience for the Guardian and Britain’s opinionated press, and of weblogs — note that the journalism business is grappling with the proper and improper roles of opinion and activism. This trend toward opinion did not come up as an explicit discussion, and I chose not to raise it, but I see a coming-together nonetheless: The news business — with help from the likes of Aspen — is recognizing the trend toward opinion and even activism and is trying to understand how to properly operate in this new world. That takes time and deliberation and work but the work is going on.

Now, at long last, is my real point in telling you all of this: If we media people met the bloggers, we’d be impressed with the sincerity of their effort. And if we bloggers met the media people, we’d be impressed with the effort of their sincerity. In short: the more established media people and blog people meet and talk, the more they will understand each other, the more they will focus on issues and information, the less they will waste time bashing or belittling.

I’ve been talking with some folks about a possible upcoming confab that would bring these two mobs together. I don’t expect such a meeting to end with a group hug (God forbid) but I do think it would be worthwhile for all.

Sometimes I feel as if that meeting goes on in my own head, since by day I am Newsman and in the off hours, I go into a (high-speed Internet) phone booth and emerge Blogboy. But it’s not a war in my head (despite appearances). The two worlds can, and should, coexist sanely, civilly, and productively.