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.