God I pity any of you who, like me, have to read the various blogs and Web sites that dicker over the future of journalism. So much of them seem to be written by cranky, whiny babies. Jeff Jarvis's BuzzMachine is the worst offender, lacking even the ounce of humor that would leaven the pretentiousness or the shred of humility that might suggest Jarvis is not in possession of a crystal ball that tells him exactly what the future is going to be like.
And yet I read it every day, for despite his sour writing style, Jarvis is a mover and shaker whose blog crystallizes one school of thought. His posts draw two types of comments: those that mirror his polar thinking and those that emanate from the other end of the earth. There isn't much middle ground but it's fun to watch the fireworks.
Of course, the Bill Keller speech I praised earlier this week comes in for especial contempt. What struck me as a reasoned explanation of the importance of proper journalism (facts carefully acquired, even in dangerous settings) struck Jarvis and his crowd as a contemptuous slam on all they hold sacred. (Basically, Keller said that Jarvis said that blogging would replace the mainstream media, and Jarvis said "Oh no I di-unt." But really, Jarvis's main gripe seems to be that Keller didn't bow deeply enough in his general direction.)
It's that odd, Oedipal thing I've remarked upon before. For some reason it also reminds me of that scene in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" where a peasant (Michael Palin) is swatted by an annoyed King Arthur (Graham Chapman) and then keeps shouting "Now we see the violence inherent in the system! Come and see the violence inherent in the system!"
Keller and Jarvis have sort of made nice, in an exchange that ends with Jarvis trying to wheedle some sort of collaboration with the New York Times. I'm sure Keller would be thrilled at that.
What do I think of all this stuff? Not the petty bitching but the issues themselves? Well I'm still studying, aren't I? But so far I can see both sides of the argument. I take it as a given that the democratizing power of the Internet empowers citizens to gather more information and spread more information. I agree with Harvard's Yochai Benkler, who writes in his impressive new book "The Wealth of Networks" that "The networked public sphere, as it is currently developing, suggests that it will have no obvious point of control or exertion of influence--either by fiat or by purchase. It seems to invert the mass-media model in that it is driven heavily by what dense clusters of users find intensely interesting and engaging, rather than by what large swaths of them find mildly interesting or average."
Moreover, I'm intrigued by his argument that the mere possibility of being able to engage in communication with the public sphere reorients us: "The way we listen to what we hear changes because of this; as does, perhaps most fundamentally, the way we observe and process daily events in our lives. We no longer need to take these as merely private observations, but as potential subjects for public communication. This changes the relative power of the media."
But I also worry about what researchers call "filtering for accreditation." In a networked world we'll have to figure out whom to trust for our information. That may not be every schmo with a blog. And I don't buy the argument that some rabid MSM-haters make that there is something inherently corrupt and untrustworthy about the press. I think many citizen journalism efforts are just crappy or weirdly self-referential. Of course, so too are plenty of newspapers, especially when you get out of the East Coast orbit. And some efforts that harness the power of the Internet and the crowd are immensely valuable. Benkler describes how a mixture of bloggers, students and freelance software experts exposed serious problems with Diebold electronic voting machines. What they did sure sounds like journalism to me, without the need for any qualifiers.
There is no one-size-fits-all answer for this stuff.
Here's something interesting: A while back Jarvis wrote about a report issued by Britain's National Union of Journalists that was critical of Web 2.0. Jarvis was typically cutting ("whiny, territorial, ass-covering" was one descriptor he used), though the bits of the report he quoted didn't seem so outrageous to me (stories shouldn't go online without being edited, for example; untrained writers make for poor online video). I said this in a comment, noting that I hadn't read the report myself.
Now I've seen a copy of the NUJ's monthly magazine, Journalist, and I think Jarvis was probably right. The magazine has that to-the-ramparts feel. But what floored me was that they quoted from my BuzzMachine comment in their December issue. I guess the anonymity of the Web makes that easy, but is that right? Should they have contacted me (my blog was easily findable from my comment)? And do they undercut their argument against new media by employing its tools?
Most amusingly, the NUJ report included this section: "The ease of copying and pasting leads to journalists under time pressure to 'simply lump text across without proper consideration of its quality or reliability.'”
Um, isn't that what Journalist magazine did? Pot, meet kettle.