Journalism as a control point

My Guardian colleague Mike Tomasky reveals much in his reaction to Jay Rosen’s post about the Off the Bus blogger who reported Barack Obama’s bitter comments. Tomasky thinks that news happens by journalism’s rules and he’s upset the rules have changed and wants new rules. But who ever gave journalism hegemony over news? News is what happens and what people witness and what they can now share, with or without journalists. That’s the new rule of the press-sphere: nobody rules.

Says Tomasky: “But if the old rules are fading away, there have to be a few new ones to take their place. There can’t just be anarchy.”

Anarchy is defined that as a world without his rules. So he wants to impose some:

So there are still some things to sort out about all this. I’d suggest, for starters, that any citizen-journalist who has made political donations be forced to list them at the bottom of every post . . . . I’d also say that citizen-journalists ought to have the responsibility, when the circumstances merit it, of seeking follow-up comment from the other side (or, in the case above, giving Obama aides the standard chance to clarify). That’s the tough part of journalism. Any idiot can run a tape recorder.

So fine – let’s change the rules. But let’s at least have some.

But what happens when you take away the label journalist and just call the person a witness? Does that person have to live by Tomasky’s rules? Or can that person still tell people what she heard and saw? Isn’t that simply put free speech?

I’m rather appalled that Tomasky also thinks that political candidates of all people ought to be able to benefit from the cloak of secrecy enabled by his rules. He makes it a club and if you violate the club’s rules and report what an elected official said, what happens to you? You get ejected?

So fine, eliminate the label of journalist. Citizens can listen. Citizens can talk. Citizens can share. Citizens can publish. When they hear something newsworthy, citizens don’t need to go running to flacks to make sure it’s OK to repeat what they heard. In that case, I’d prefer to have citizens telling me what happens. They are less beholden than journalists. They don’t care about the rules. They care about the news. That’s what happened in Off the Bus’ story. If it had been a journalist hearing what she heard, would she have run to the flack to get a cleaned-up version, as Tomasky suggests? Would she have kept it secret because that’s what his rules said? Or would she have reported it, as Off the Bus did?

Oh, and on Tomasky’s suggestion that citizens reveal their contributions, how about this: I still want journalists to reveal their sympathies. I’d say that’s every bit as relevant and fare more often hidden.

The best rule from all sides: openness.