Talk of the town

I’m sorely disappointed in Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann’s piece in The New Yorker about “journalism without journalists.”

I would have hoped for something more expansive, imaginative, open, creative, generous, constructive, strategic, and hopeful from the head of one of America’s leading journalism schools — from, indeed, the man hired to bring that school into the future — and from a leading light of American reporting.

Instead, Lemann pits professional journalist v. blogger — as if any more ink need be spilled on that putative battleground — and sets up his easy strawmen to tear them down.

His strawman king: that bloggers believe they will replace journalists. I don’t know a single blogger who says that with a straight face. But that is what professional journalists — fewer and fewer of them, actually — think they hear bloggers say and so they snipe back with very straight and sometimes red faces: ‘Yeah, you and who else?’

His next strawman is that some blogging is not journalism or is bad journalism and thus all blogging is not journalism because it is not performed by journalists. He points to some quaint examples of human speech in blogs — more on those in a moment — and dismisses it because it is not institutional and profound. Well, I can point to lots of allegedly professional journalism — somebody paid for it — in lots of newspapers — like the wee daily near me — and on lots of TV and radio stations in this country that is folksy, chatty, uninformative, badly written, and often utter crap. Does that mean that all professional journalism is crap? Of course not. It’s a lazy argument. And while I’m at it, dare I say that I can dig out lots of Talk of the Town pieces and letters from correspondents over the years in The New Yorker that did little or nothing to inform the nation and were written in a once-anonymous, faux folksiness that tried to simulate the humanity and real life you hear in the excerpts Lemann mocks.

The strawman he presents at the start of his essay is that bloggers think they are all inventing something new and that they are really just descendants of the pamphleteers who spread their words with opinion and agenda at the time of America’s founding, long before modern institutional journalism was invented. Stipulated. Says Lemann:

They were the bloggers and citizen journalists of their day, and their influence was far greater (though their audiences were far smaller) than what anybody on the Internet has yet achieved.

I don’t know a blogger who does not agree with that — at least writer-by-writer, if not regarding the medium as a whole. Bloggers proudly point to the pamphleteers as parents. They don’t say they are new against the history of conversation and publication, information and advocacy. Bloggers say they are new when set against the current conceit of institutional journalism that it is objective and dispassionate and is the steward of truth and trust — a kind of journalism that Lemann himself concedes is relatively new. Says Lemann:

In fact, what the prophets of Internet journalism believe themselves to be fighting against–journalism in the hands of an enthroned few, who speak in a voice of phony, unearned authority to the passive masses–is, as a historical phenomenon, mainly a straw man.

But he is a strawman of your making.

The next strawman is me: I am held up as an example of unrestrained blog snarkiness and for that he found quite the juicy tossed tomato, a snitfit I had in 2003 when The New York Times’ John Markoff trotted out his own strawman (one I’d thought to be extinct by now) about blogs being the next CB radio. Markoff also said that he didn’t need a blog because The Times is a blog. I fisked that interview with Markoff and looking back — this came out two weeks after the first Bloggercon — I have to say I still enjoy it. Lemann didn’t even quote my nastiest line: “You know, institutions worry about letting reporters blog without editing but they don’t worry about letting a jackass like this out without a leash.” Opinionated, blunt voices scare big-J Journalists. But we don’t always yell. Only when provoked.

And finally, if there’s any hay left, there’s Lemann’s belief that journalism’s standards were set by the professionals. I’d say they are still being set by the public who have always decided every day whom to believe and whom to trust — only now, we get to hear their decision process.

So Lemann continues to paint this as a fight: bloggers v. journalists. He continues to try to define journalists as the professionals, to define the act by the person who performs it (and, implicitly, the training he has) rather than by the act itself. He continues to try to limit journalism to journalists, wanting in his last line for reporters (note, he didn’t say reporting) to move to citizens’ journalism.

I so wish I had seen him instead imagine the possibilities for news when journalists and bloggers join to work together in a network made possible by the internet. I wish he had seen journalism expanded way past the walls of newsrooms and j-schools to gather and share more information for an informed society. I wish he had used his lofty perch to see beyond the horizon to a new future for journalism and the students he — and I — are teaching now.

But no. Pity.

* * *

: Now to address some of the specifics of Lemann’s piece, in order:

The quality of Internet journalism is bound to improve over time, especially if more of the virtues of traditional journalism migrate to the Internet.

That’s from his lede. And that’s a fair statement. But it’s half a thought. The other half: The quality of professional/traditional journalism is bound to improve over time as its practitioners recognize the value of the questions, contributions, and criticism they can now hear from the public they want to serve.

: Speaking of 17th century Britain’s pamphleteers, Lemann says:

Then as now, the new media in their fresh youth produced a distinctive, hot-tempered rhetorical style. . . . Each side in what Knights understands, properly, as the media front in a merciless political struggle between Whigs and Tories soon began accusing the other of trafficking in lies, distortions, conspiracy theories, and special pleading, and presenting itself as the avatar of the public interest, civil discourse, and epistemologically derived truth. Knights sees this genteeler style of expression as just another political tactic, but it nonetheless drove print publication toward a more reasoned, less inflamed rhetorical stance, which went along with a partial settling down of British politics from hot war between the parties to cold. . . . At least in part, Internet journalism will surely repeat the cycle, and will begin to differentiate itself tonally, by trying to sound responsible and trustworthy in the hope of building a larger, possibly paying audience.

He fails to hear the many voices of internet journalism and discussion, a variety of tones and attitudes as broad and varied as the moods of all the citizens who make it up. Lemann does acknowledge last week’s small Pew survey that revealed most bloggers do not think of what they do as journalism; they think of it as life. So if journalists want to report on and understand and serve the public, then they should realize that they have never had such a golden opportunity to listen to their public.

: Regarding his strawman king, again, Lemann writes:

The more ambitious blogs, taken together, function as a form of fast-moving, densely cross-referential pamphleteering–an open forum for every conceivable opinion that can’t make its way into the big media, or, in the case of the millions of purely personal blogs, simply an individual’s take on life. The Internet is also a venue for press criticism (“We can fact-check your ass!” is one of the familiar rallying cries of the blogosphere) and a major research library of bloopers, outtakes, pranks, jokes, and embarrassing performances by big shots. But none of that yet rises to the level of a journalistic culture rich enough to compete in a serious way with the old media–to function as a replacement rather than an addendum.

Show me the millions of Technorati links claiming that we will fill your newsrooms. And to say that “none of it rises” is a strong and all-too-broad dismissal. None? Not one bit? But if those pamphleteers you cite so admirably were the forefathers of the journalism you also admire today, then isn’t it awfully soon in the lives of the next generation of pamphleteers to judge their value? Isn’t it rather shortsighted to dismiss them?

: After giving Jay Rosen’s a nice plug, Lemann continues:

Even before the advent of NewAssignment.Net, and even for people who don’t blog, there is a lot more opportunity to talk back to news organizations than there used to be. In their Internet versions, most traditional news organizations make their reporters available to answer readers’ questions and, often, permit readers to post their own material. Being able to see this as the advent of true democracy in what had been a media oligarchy makes it much easier to argue that Internet journalism has already achieved great things.

So newspapers allowing readers to email reporters and post comments is the greatest achievement of the internet in news? Faint praise, indeed. He continues:

Still: Is the Internet a mere safety valve, a salon des refusés, or does it actually produce original information beyond the realm of opinion and comment? It ought to raise suspicion that we so often hear the same menu of examples in support of its achievements: bloggers took down the 2004 “60 Minutes” report on President Bush’s National Guard service and, with it, Dan Rather’s career; bloggers put Trent Lott’s remarks in apparent praise of the Jim Crow era front and center, and thereby deposed him as Senate majority leader.

Fair enough. But who is to say that intenret journalism should be judged on the big scoop or the big takedown? Journalism has many markets with many needs. See in today’s Pew study how much people really care about politics versus the rest of their lives. I learn more about any consumerist topic online than I do in any magazine. Do bloggers waste their time covering the White House press room? Why bother? It’s already overcovered and nothing happens there anyway.

But once again, I smell hay. The implication is that until bloggers do what the professional journalists do, then they are not doing journalism, not pulling their weight.

This is the heart of the tragedy of Lemann’s piece. Once again: This is not about replacing the professionals. This is about complementing them, improving their work with additional questions and facts, doing the things they can’t do because there are not enough of them. I would hope that Lemann would see the opportunities for journalism schools and journalism to spread what they know so that journalism can be practiced more widely. (But then, I suppose I should be glad for the lack of competition.)

Finally, it seems that Lemann starts to see the light:

Eyewitness accounts and information-sharing during sudden disasters are welcome, even if they don’t provide a complete report of what is going on in a particular situation. And that is what citizen journalism is supposed to do: keep up with public affairs, especially locally, year in and year out, even when there’s no disaster. Citizen journalists bear a heavy theoretical load. They ought to be fanning out like a great army, covering not just what professional journalists cover, as well or better, but also much that they ignore. Great citizen journalism is like the imagined Northwest Passage–it has to exist in order to prove that citizens can learn about public life without the mediation of professionals. But when one reads it, after having been exposed to the buildup, it is nearly impossible not to think, This is what all the fuss is about?

So then he sets up an expectation so that he can knock it down. Cheap trick. Old, traditional journalistic trick. He goes on to mock a sampling of citizens’ journalism, to say that it does not reach those standards, does not do that job, disappoints him. He picks on an OhMyNews lede and I will say that the English version of OhMy (I can’t speak for the Korean) is often clumsy in its reporting and writing. Fine. But there are a million more citizen journalists where they came from. He quotes from Northwest Voices and Backfence. But most foolishly, he quotes from Debbie Galant’s Baristanet post about her vacation, possibly not realizing that Debbie is a former New York Times journalist Journalist. He doesn’t point to the valued local reporting she and her neighbors do. He says that she is “one of the most esteemed ‘hyperlocal bloggers’ in the country” but it appears he does not esteem her. His loss.

He concludes his tour of citizens’ journalism:

In other words, the content of most citizen journalism will be familiar to anybody who has ever read a church or community newsletter–it’s heartwarming and it probably adds to the store of good things in the world, but it does not mount the collective challenge to power which the traditional media are supposedly too timid to take up. Often the most journalistically impressive material on one of the “hyperlocal” citizen-journalism sites has links to professional journalism, as in the Northwest Voice, or Chi-Town Daily News, where much of the material is written by students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, who are in training to take up full-time jobs in news organizations.

Right. The citizens see this as a partnership. So should the journalists, then.

At the highest level of journalistic achievement, the reporting that revealed the civil-liberties encroachments of the war on terror, which has upset the Bush Administration, has come from old-fashioned big-city newspapers and television networks, not Internet journalists; day by day, most independent accounts of world events have come from the same traditional sources.

And no one would say that those reporters should be fired and their work stopped. (Well, except in the cast of the NSA and banking stories, some might disagree….)

Even at its best and most ambitious, citizen journalism reads like a decent Op-Ed page, and not one that offers daring, brilliant, forbidden opinions that would otherwise be unavailable.

Like, oh, Maureen Dowd?

Most citizen journalism reaches very small and specialized audiences and is proudly minor in its concerns.

Exactly. This never was a one-size-fits all world, it only seemed that way when this was all the news that fit.

Lemann ends here:

Journalism is not in a period of maximal self-confidence right now, and the Internet’s cheerleaders are practically laboratory specimens of maximal self-confidence. They have got the rhetorical upper hand; traditional journalists answering their challenges often sound either clueless or cowed and apologetic. As of now, though, there is not much relation between claims for the possibilities inherent in journalist-free journalism and what the people engaged in that pursuit are actually producing. As journalism moves to the Internet, the main project ought to be moving reporters there, not stripping them away.

But that, I say, should have been the beginning of his piece: Just how, Dean Lemann, do you propose to do that?

* * *

Note: I’m rushing off from the Panera to pick up my son and so I haven’t combed over this. Like a sloppy blogger, I’m putting it up anyway because I value the conversation that I hope will ensue. So I may tweak later but here it is. (And, yes, I’ll make “strawman” two words then.)

: LATER: See Jay Rosen’s response to another strawman the other day:

Grrrr. I too find it entertaining that there are so many people in the traditional media who claim that large numbers of bloggers think they can replace journalists (but it’s not likely to happen.) The belief is almost entirely the invention of the people who wish to debunk it. Weird, right?

: LATER: More discussion from Len Witt, Mitch Ratcliffe, Social Media, Azeem Azhar, Ed Cone.

: I should respond to the challenge I give to Dean Lemann at the end of the post. I’ll write a post later.

: LATER STILL: Steven Johnson says it eloquently and briefly and correctly.

: AND MORE LINKS: Tosh on tosh. Robin Hamann with a wrapup of more droning on the topic.