Newsday op-ed: News served raw

I have an op-ed in Newsday today on the implications of the Saddam execution video and news served raw (permanent link here).

We are in the age of news served raw. And it doesn’t get much rawer than the cell-phone video of Saddam Hussein’s execution that made its way to the Internet only hours after the deed was done. Even as news organizations deliberated about whether and what to show of the execution, the entire event appeared on YouTube, available for anyone who cared or dared to watch.

Get ready for more of the same. Witnesses to any event can now capture and share what they see not just with acquaintances but with the world, and without the filter and delay of news media. And that doesn’t mean just cell-phone snapshots of bombings or surreptitious footage of closed events. We also have access to the guts of news – original documents, full transcripts, unedited video. So anything anyone sees can be recorded and disseminated. Life is on the record.

Journalists, especially editors, may lament this latest loss of control. But again and again I have seen the public gravitate toward raw news. When I started newspaper Web sites, one of the most popular features was a complete, unedited feed of The Associated Press wire, riddled with “writethrus,” advisories and other wire-service arcana. It beat by miles the traffic to a packaged version of the same news. My students at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism tell me how they prefer TV news that is less heavily produced, closer to the source. And those Hussein videos have been viewed a few million times. Not everyone wants to watch every grisly detail or dig into every dull document. But we do want to know we can.

Is this bad for journalism? I say no. How can we object to having more information available to more people?

Does the journalist still have a job? I say yes. The journalist has more of a role than ever – but no longer as the gatekeeper. The information is out there for anyone to find. The journalist can help uncover it, verify or debunk it, and can add perspective and context. Journalists still need to do what they have always done: Find the facts and the people who know what they are talking about – witnesses and experts. Now, thanks to the technology of the Internet, there are new ways to gather and find this information and to collect the wisdom of the experts. Journalism changes but, I argue, grows.

One possible new role for journalists is to educate the public about what reporters learn early – that sometimes, the “facts” outpace the truth. We witness this on cable news, when we see news unfolding before it can be confirmed. Remember the West Virginia mining disaster, when the pealing of the church bells and the happy people rushing by cable’s cameras, together with mistaken reports and rumors, told us that most of the victims had survived when, in truth, most had died. Similar confusion came often in battlefield reports from Iraq. The fog of war becomes the fog of news. So we in the public must continue to exercise the skepticism and discrimination of the journalist in judging the news. Journalists cannot continue to believe that they can deliver the truth for us in neatly packaged stories once a day. No, journalists need to arm us with the means to judge the truth ourselves. Actually, that has always been the job of the journalist, only now it is more apparent.

So journalists are no longer here to sanitize the news for our protection. Those of us who want to watch the Hussein execution know where to find it. I see a benefit even in this. For in their efforts to package and polish the news, editors sometimes make the world look neater than it truly is. We can recognize this in the battlefield videos on YouTube, showing us a harsher view from the front. And there can be no clearer demonstration of this than the Hussein execution. Killing someone is never as antiseptic and cold as it appears in the stories about lethal injections in America or in the first reports of Hussein’s death. Our newfound ability to watch the complete event takes away the pretense of civility some tried to place around the act. So now we can judge it in the light of day. This is the truth, as raw as it gets.

: MORE: Tim Luckhurst in The Independent:

But, for new-media enthusiasts, the fact that amateur film from a mobile telephone set the global news agenda shows citizen journalism has come of age.

From the moment the explicit footage appeared on, traditional editorial processes were redundant. No editor decided who could witness this tawdry spectacle. . . .

With the Saddam images, new-wave unmediated journalism proved that freelance citizen images can dictate, not merely influence, the news agenda.

But Adrian Monck counters:

The arrest of the individual who shot the video will undoubtedly deter anyone tempted to video other executions. The genie of information freedom pops out, but the stopper quickly goes back on the bottle.

Yes, there are still points of control. But fewer and fewer of them. Adrian says we didn’t see other executions. Yes, but we did see the pictures from Abu Ghraib.

Peter Preston in the Observer wonders what influence this new competition had on mainstream outlets:

Could you see Saddam swing on the internet? Almost instantly. What’s the point of denying your readers something that competitors hand them automatically? Does your audience need shielding from a grisly old world and buy you to comfort it at breakfast time? That seemed to be what a suddenly squeamish Simon Jenkins argued in the Guardian on Friday.

Says the squeamish Mr. Jenkins:

Conventional wisdom holds that this edifice of rule-bound censorship is collapsing. The editor has been demystified and disempowered. All the world can peddle its wares on the internet without let or hindrance. Each is his own artist, novelist, reporter, diarist, columnist and, above all, editor. The carefully written and processed article enjoys no higher status than the blog responses that cling to its feet. Why listen to steam radio when you can wander the backstreets of YouTube and MySpace and watch real people do real things. Alexander Pope was right: such random chance is “direction which thou canst not see,/ All discord, harmony not understood”. Or as Donald Rumsfeld put it, stuff happens.

To say that the internet is giving formal journalism a nervous breakdown is an understatement. If palm-sized mobiles can intrude on every privacy and hackers break into every computer, who are newspapers to remain as haughty intermediaries? If I do not want Saddam Hussein’s head lolling across the corn flakes, I need not log on to it (pending the advent of 1984). Every two-bit terrorist or overnight exhibitionist has the freedom of the web, and I can always press “close” and “delete”. . . .

There is no substitute for a disciplined, rule-bound, edited news-gatherer any more than there is for a formal theatre, movie-maker or publisher. Marshall McLuhan’s “the medium is the message” will not find its apotheosis in the internet. The message transcends the medium and always will. The fact that a reader’s taste can sometimes be shocked shows the power of the trust on which it is normally based.

And as we get prissy about the PC execution, let’s remember Mussolini‘s as he was hung upside-down on a meat hook in the public square. There’s nothing humane about an execution.