Rules for journalists/bloggers/witnesses? A Guardian debate

Here’s a debate that just went up at CommentIsFree (please go comment there; the discussion’s already underway): me vs. Michael Tomasky, the Guardian’s man in Washington, over whether, as he has said, bloggers should operate under the rules of journalism…..

Editor’s note: Earlier this month Barack Obama’s election campaign was shaken by a report that Obama had described rural, white voters as “bitter”. The news was broken by a “citizen journalist”, Mayhill Fowler, and was carried on the Huffington Post’s politics blog, Off The Bus. Last week Guardian America editor Michael Tomasky argued on CiF that Fowler’s reporting raised serious ethical questions and argued that blogging, like journalism, needed rules. CiF commentator Jeff Jarvis responded on his blog Buzzmachine that openness, not rules, was demanded in the era of the internet. The answer? Bring the two men together to thrash it out, right here.

Jeff Jarvis to Michael Tomasky:

I believe the rules you long to carry into the new world are inherently corrupting for journalism: We journalists have long traded in the currencies of access and exclusivity with the powerful. But the price we pay is complicity in a system of secrecy. That’s what off-the-record talks and unnamed sources add up to: secrets. As journalists we should be allergic to the idea of helping public officials hide anything from the public.

And as journalists, I’d have thought we’d be rejoicing in the idea that witnesses can now share what they hear from public figures. Openness is our cause, transparency our goal, no? Yes, we may lose some exclusives – but exclusives now have the half-life of a click. With more openness and more reporting – by all – we will end up with more stories, the public will get more information, and politicians will learn that anything and everything they say and do can (and should) be reported.

You want transparency from the citizen journalists. I agree, but I’d expand that: I want transparency from all journalists, and not just about donations but also about influences, especially in the US, where claims of objectivity have lately become a cloak for partisanship. That’s the simplest rule: openness for all.

I think we should be applauding and supporting Mayhill Fowler. Her reporting of Obama’s “bitter” remarks – in spite of her support of his candidacy – is an impressive act of intellectual honesty. She knew those remarks would be newsworthy. She knew they could hurt him. But she opted for openness, directly to the public, around campaign spin as well as press filters: the witness reports. I’d say she showed veteran journalists how to operate under new rules of her own that, in this case, were superior to the old rules of conspiratorial secrecy.

Michael to Jeff:

Well, sometimes the rules I “long” for (what a word!) are inherently corrupting and result in secrets being kept from the public. But sometimes, indeed more often, it’s just the opposite. Sometimes, only the protection of anonymity will ensure that a source with important information about powerful people comes forward. In this way, the public has learned about a million things, from the Pentagon Papers to the less alarmist intelligence assessments about Iraq before the war. You know that.

And very few journalists I know would favour “[hiding] anything from the public.” They would, however, favour not publishing something until it’s verified. That’s scarcely complicity in secret-keeping. That’s just being responsible. I’ll tell you what. Let’s go ask Alan Rusbridger the following: One of his reporters hears from one source (unwilling to go on the record) that David Cameron praised Oswald Mosley in a private talk. Should the Guardian publish on the basis of that alone? I’m guessing that Alan would prove himself to be “old-fashioned” on this point, and properly so.

But none of this has to do with what Fowler did. To recap: She got in the door because she donated money to Obama’s campaign. This is something no beat reporter would or could do. Then she was able to take advantage of that situation. She “showed veteran journalists” nothing, because “veteran journalists” would not have been allowed in that meeting! You write as if these “veteran journalists” would have heard Obama’s remarks and kept them secret. But the point is that veteran journalists would never have gotten through the door in the first place.

So fine; call them “witnesses” and drop the whole conceit that they’re journalists. And I’m glad you agree about listing witnesses’ donations. Will you take that message to Arianna Huffington and Jay Rosen [the co-sponsors of the Off The Bus citizen journalists’ blog]?

Jeff to Michael:

Well, I think you’re mixing apples and kumquats into a bit of a rhetorical fruit salad. There’s quite a difference between hearing a tip from a whistleblower and recording a presidential candidate speaking at a forum. There’s also a difference between verifying such a tip with reporting – which we’ll all agree is necessary – and playing that tape-recording, which itself was the verification anyone needed. Obama’s words and voice spoke for themselves. So I don’t see the connection you make between keeping something off the record and verifying it; the former does nothing in the interest of the latter in this matter.

To make your hypothetical case consistent with the discussion at hand, if the witness who heard David Cameron praise Oswald Mosley put a video of it on YouTube for all to see, I imagine that you and the Guardian would deal with it at face value. You would, as reporters did in the Obama case, report further – you’d put an oyster around the pearl. But these witnesses are the ones who now start the story.

Now let me extend your hypothetical: let’s say that a reporter did get in the room with Obama and had made a pledge to keep it off the record. But a donor – any old donor, with or without a blog – had recorded the session (as Fowler says many did) and put that on YouTube. Does it now matter that there was a journalist there? Who is serving the public better? I say the journalist should be delighted that word got out and that demanding such off-the-record pledges is now fruitless.

This is a crucial element in a new architecture of news: when witnesses share what they see publicly we need to figure out how to integrate that into our journalism. It will become even more complicated when they share what they see live with their camera-phones, as technology allows today. Veteran journalists may be nowhere near that news – because, as journalists, they had not been allowed in the door or merely because they had not arrived yet – but they will depend on such reporting or witnessing, call it what you will. It will still add up to journalism in the end.

As for your challenge on disclosure, I’ve done more: I reveal my politics on my blog’s disclosure page, including my vote for Hillary Clinton in the primaries. I’ve blogged my expectation to see similar behaviour from bloggers and journalists alike. I went so far as to ask my readers recently whether, having revealed my preferences anyway, I should put my money where my mouth is and donate to Clinton’s campaign. Their view (like mine) was mixed. But it’s worth asking: if I’m going to be a citizen journalist, shouldn’t I act like a citizen?

Michael to Jeff:

You make a fair point in the bulk of your third and fourth paragraphs, but then you end, for me, on a false note. I suppose Fowler served the public interest in the sense that, sure, those remarks of Obama’s were revealing of something or other. But I still say it’s a little sneaky and sleazy to be a citizen for the purposes of making a donation, and then getting to be a journalist for the purposes of writing it up. There is a certain duplicity there, Jeff. Let citizens or witnesses videotape and audiotape to their hearts’ contents. But no, it doesn’t add up to journalism. It adds up to recording, or transcribing.

As I said in my original CiF column, I overwhelmingly embrace the blogosphere, and I like most of what I’ve read under the Off The Bus rubric. (I felt you didn’t acknowledge this in your original Buzzmachine post, which practically made it sound like I have a Linotype machine in my basement to which I pay secret ritualistic obeisance.) But I admit that I’m a little less persuaded that it’s such a great and necessary thing that we know every single word public people utter. People say dumb things and things they don’t really mean. They misspeak. Whether constant recording of such missteps, and the inevitable intense fixation on them, will over time serve the public interest and help voters make more “informed” decisions is not yet settled in my view.

That it will lead to more “gotcha!” moments on the campaign trail as candidates are caught saying naughty things isn’t a particularly stellar claim to make for the blogosphere, which actually does far more important work in the areas of media-monitoring and community-building. What I like about the blogosphere is that, at its best, it elevates the debate. Mainstream journalists would think I’m out of my mind to say that, but it’s true – there are, for example, all manner of policy experts with blogs who shed real light on substantive questions, or bloggers with the intellectual chops to make really interesting and important observations about something happening in the news. Or look at what FireDogLake did during the Scooter Libby trail, which was awesome. All those things are great. Catching pols putting their feet in their mouths may make news, but it’s not exactly why John Peter Zenger went to jail.

Jeff to Michael:

I don’t think this is really about bloggers. It’s almost coincidental that Fowler had a platform at Huffington Post. If she hadn’t, she’d still have found the way to tell her story, if only on YouTube. This weekend, at an open house for students at the City University of New York graduate school of journalism, where I teach, I spoke with a potential student who has been volunteering in the Clinton campaign and she has a great story to tell about the reaction she has gotten, as an African-American woman, from Obama volunteers. Now the fact that she’s a volunteer is not just something to be disclosed, it’s at the heart of the story. Hers is a great story that is revealing about the campaigns and, more so, the country and the times. I urged her to start writing and said she should pitch it to a magazine. Or better yet, wouldn’t the Guardian like to see it?

I think this discussion is balancing on what will add up to journalism and who all does that adding. I believe that coverage of stories and topics will, more and more, become molecules that attract all different sorts of atoms: a bit of reporting – and, yes, it’s reporting – from witnesses; reporters’ work adding balance, depth, vetting, answers to questions; editors packaging and adding links to background and source material; readers and bloggers adding – as you indeed point out – corrections and context; sources having the chance, at last, to respond in kind. Journalism becomes less of a product and more of a process. When I was at the Guardian a few weeks ago to talk about its new newsroom, this notion was at the centre of the discussion. What you’re really talking about, I think, is not rules but is a new organizing principle of journalism.

I’m glad that Fowler had her recorder and shared what she heard. That, I believe, is the seed for journalism and we in the business and in the society will benefit. And so, in the long run, will politicians, once they learn the benefits of living and working more transparently. Will we have silly gotcha moments? Sadly, yes. But sadly, we had those long before bloggers were born. Was what Fowler reported a gotcha moment or a revealing one? Well, that’s where our perspectives – and our transparency about them – come into play. I thought it was revealing, but I’m a Hillary voter and you’d be within your rights to judge what I say accordingly. You have been laudably open about your preference and so it’s right for you and your readers to wonder what impact that might have. This becomes one more ingredient in what it turning into a bigger and bigger pot of journalism stew.

Michael to Jeff:

Regarding your last paragraph, I already said that Fowler served the public interest. I think the quote was revealing of something; at the least, the fact that Obama has comparatively little direct experience dealing with and talking to white, rural working-class people and not enough familiarity with their way of life. So that’s a fair knock. It’s just that these things do get blown out of proportion, and it gets comical (or sometimes worse) watching millionaire pundits natter on about “elitism.”

I’ll just end where I started. I still say she came by the quote at best surreptitiously because she got in the door as a citizen (via her donation) and then became a journalist when that was handy, a contention you haven’t seriously refuted except to say (1) that’s the way it is these days, and (2) okay, then, let’s drop the word journalist from our description of Fowler et al and just call them witnesses. That’s my claim, and you haven’t said anything to dissuade me from sticking to it. On all this other meta stuff, we don’t especially disagree.