Citizen-Journalism: Threat or Menace? [Karl]
Jeff’s engagement with today’s football games—and his invitation to guest-bloggers—brought to mind James McCormick’s post last week at ChicagoBoyz, “As Serious As Football,” which compares MSM coverage of current events to sports journalism:
Yet something still distinguishes sports media from the Ã¢â‚¬Å“current eventsÃ¢â‚¬Â media Ã¢â‚¬â€ the MSM Ã¢â‚¬â€ that I usually read. Most of the sports media actually recognize that there are things that the coaches and players will not tell them. Never have. Never will. That the media do not require, and will not get, a briefing on all the details of a game plan, and certainly donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need ongoing espionage operations to do a good job for their employers and readers.
Thus my broader view for the day Ã¢â‚¬â€ America will get the MSM it wants when America takes its national security as seriously as its football.
We donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t need Ã¢â‚¬Å“happy hacksÃ¢â‚¬Â (to quote Mickey Kaus) but we do need media who recognize that theyÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve got some skin in this game. That there are things that they do not need to know, immediately, under a system of representative government. That their role in life is not to undermine the effectiveness of the local team. Yes, we want to know the strengths and weaknesses. But winning the game Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ not exposing how the game is to be won Ã¢â‚¬Â¦ is what ultimately counts to the fans.
McCormick, at root, is asking for citizen journalists. Given the recent track record of the mass media in exposing top-secret anti-terrorism programs, even without evidence of governmental abuses, it should be clear that this is not the mass media we have.
The MSM we have is one evolved from progressivism. The professionalization of journalism and its idealization of “objectivity” mirror the efforts of the progressives and the Mugwumps at the turn of the last century. As such it contains an inherent tension between the drive to make government more responsive to the people and the drive to centralize power in the hands of supposed professionals at the expense of those elected by the people.
By the end of Vietnam and Watergate, journalists had fully embraced the model of the adversarial press, and the Fourth Estate model, where the press is an essential check on government, a modern addition to the balance of powers. It did so even though the interests and purposes of the First Amendment are not identical with the interests and purposes of the mass institutional press.
Jay Rosen went even further in an essay titled JOURNALISM IS ITSELF A RELIGION. Yet, as Rosen notes, even within the faith, those advocating civic journalism (eek!) demonstrated that journalism is a religion based on a number of highly questionable beliefs:
Journalists donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t get involved. (Well, they are involved, so what now?)
We have to remain detached. (But how do you detach yourself from a public culture that responds to your every move?)
Whether people join in democracy or do not is their business, not ours. (Do you really believe that an inert and atomized audience, a demoralized and disaffected citizenry, can provide Ã¢â‚¬Å“your businessÃ¢â‚¬Â with any meaningful future? Can that ever be a matter of indifference?)
Our job is to tell the truth, not report things the way we would like them to be. (Journalism itself stands for the way things should be. Its implicit beliefÃ¢â‚¬â€call it faithÃ¢â‚¬â€is that people can make a difference when they know what is happening in their world.)
Rosen then discussed the bankruptcy of the current approach with an example most will remember:
Dan Rather on being a patriot and journalist after September 11th:
What I want to do, I want to fulfill my role as a decent human member of the community and a decent and patriotic American. And therefore, I am willing to give the government, the President and the military the benefit of any doubt here in the beginning. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m going to fulfill my role as a journalist, and that is ask the questions, when necessary ask the tough questions.
Here is a journalist, prominent in the priesthood, a visible figure in the extreme; here is Dan Rather trying to explain what attaches Dan Rather to the fate of the American people, nation and government. But his religion doesnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t really go there. It has tough stuff in it about detachment, but about attachment to the republic little is said. Rather, the journalist, is also attempting to explain what he is for, in the end. But the language is too thin, the politics timid and confused, the belief system sounds exhausted.
This was confirmed for me when I watched his exclusive interview (Feb. 24, 2003) with Saddam before the war in Iraq began. It was the work of a man who did not know what he was ultimately for, or why he was taken in blindfold to the Palace that day. He did know, however, that no one else in the press had succeeded in landing an interview with Saddam since his inclusion in the American PresidentÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s Ã¢â‚¬Å“axis of evil.Ã¢â‚¬Â No one had done it, so Rather did.
And in the room where his encounter with evil (so declared) took place, Dan Rather, it seemed to me, had come armed with nothing stronger than Ã¢â‚¬Å“ask the questions, when necessary ask the tough questionsÃ¢â‚¬Â of Saddam Hussein Ã¢â‚¬â€ the mass murderer and tyrant who ruled in terror over a closed society, a republic of dense fear, where question-asking got you killed. Ã¢â‚¬Å“IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m here for my interview.Ã¢â‚¬Â
That was a situation where journalism, the religion, failed the believer. It was the wisdom of the news tribe, and the moral sense it had developed about its methods, but also the questions it never asked itself and had no answers forÃ¢â‚¬Â¦ all that sent Rather to Baghdad and gave him no betterÃ¢â‚¬â€alas, no deeperÃ¢â‚¬â€instruction than, Ã¢â‚¬Å“Bring Ã¢â‚¬ËœFace the NationÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ to Saddam Hussein.Ã¢â‚¬Â The anchor man looked lost. Saddam looked happy. I still donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t know what Rather thought he was going to accomplish.
The only surprise here is that Rosen was shocked by this episode. After all, journo icons like Mike Wallace and Peter Jennings were already on record as saying they would not attempt to warn US troops of an enemy ambush in wartime. Support the troops? No, that would not be fair and balanced.
Defenders of the mass media will argue that they are ultimately acting in the public interest by behaving in this manner. What they cannot argue is that the prevailing ethos of professional journalism is apolitical. It never has been. At the turn of this century, however, the rise of the Internet and the blogosphere exposes the tension between a mass media that considers itself an unassailable, professional conduit of information to the people and the voices of the people who would dare to question it.
Although I should not be obliged to state it, I do not think the media bears a primary responsibility for the current state of the war (even though information warfare may be as central to an Information Age war as mechanized warfare was to Industrial Age wars). But a mass media that insists on not appearing to take sides in the war—despite the fact that our side believes and a free press and the enemy does not—should not be surprised when people who want the US to win are upset with reporting they believe damages the war effort, particularly in cases where there appears to be no benefit justifying it, and especially in cases where the reporting is later discovered to be of questionable veracity. And if the mass media is truly committed to freedom of speech, they should accept that they are and should be no more immune from criticism than the government of which they claim to be a Fourth Branch.
Update: Prof. Jay Rosen replies in the comments, as do I.