The Amateur and the Professional

Some people in the commercial news media are beginning to understand something of what the blogs offer journalism—though they still manage to keep themselves at arms length from the blogs. Writing in The New Yorker of August 8, 2006, Nicholas Lemann (in a piece called “Amateur Hour”), while a little snide in his attitudes towards bloggers and their promoters (and a little overly protective of the commercial and professional news media), does seem to see (at long last) that something important is going on.

Most interesting to me is that Lemann, following Mark Knights’ Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture, believes that the raucous nature of the blogs today is a self-limiting phenomenon—much as it was in Stuart England or (as I point out in The Rise of the Blogosphere) in Jeffersonian America:

Each side in […] the media front in a merciless political struggle […] soon began accusing the other of trafficking in lies, distortions, conspiracy theories, and special pleading, and presenting itself as the avatar of the public interest, civil discourse, and epistemologically derived truth. Knights sees this genteeler style of expression as just another political tactic, but it nonetheless drove print publication toward a more reasoned, less inflamed rhetorical stance […]

I would agree with Knights that it was a tactical change, just as it was, later, in America. But, while it drove the opposing tactics underground, it did not destroy it—nor was the change a necessary (“self-limiting”) result of the nature of the earlier, more vituperative, tactics. What happened was that the rhetoric of personal attack and loud voices simply moved away from the printed page. As I’m no expert in 17th (and early 18th) Century England, I can’t say why it happened there. In the United States, the rambunctious press was squeezed out by commercial needs: the new desire was to reach the maximum number of eyes possible (hence, not to offend anyone—at least, not too often). Lemann writes:

Internet journalism will surely repeat the cycle, and will begin to differentiate itself tonally, by trying to sound responsible and trustworthy in the hope of building a larger, possibly paying audience.

Here, Lemann and I would disagree. I believe that the sphere of public discourse needs to encompass both tactics if it is to remain viable—and that one of the reasons contemporary Americans are so alienated from the news media is that it has blocked out one important type of discourse. To really provide an inviting arena for discourse, room for all types needs to be available.

Another problem I have with Lemann’s arguments is that he (like many, both bloggers and journalists) continues the idea that there is an either/or dichotomy between the commercial news media and the blogs:

The most fervent believers in the transforming potential of Internet journalism are operating not only on faith in its achievements, even if they lie mainly in the future, but on a certainty that the old media, in selecting what to publish and broadcast, make horrible and, even worse, ignobly motivated mistakes. They are politically biased, or they are ignoring or suppressing important stories, or they are out of touch with ordinary people’s concerns, or they are merely passive transmitters of official utterances. The more that traditional journalism appears to be an old-fashioned captive press, the more providential the Internet looks.

Thing is, bloggers (as far as I can tell) don’t want journalists to stop doing what they are doing, or to go away—they want them to do more—or they will start doing it themselves, adding to what the journalists are doing. What most bloggers want is an expansion in what the news media does and contains—to a size that, ideally, can include even the amateurs. They don’t want to push the commercial, professional journalists away—they simply want the professionals to recognize the importance of the amateurs.

Lemann asks:

Is the Internet a mere safety valve, a salon des refuses, or does it actually produce original information beyond the realm of opinion and comment?

Personally, I think it’s a little early to be asking that—just as it’s a bit disparaging of “opinion and comment” (are not they, sometimes, “original information”?). After all, Alexander Hamilton had been screaming away in the press for more than a decade before he settled down to The Federalist Papers (though not even that stopped his screeches elsewhere). And the political blogs have been around just half that time.

Of course, though, The Federalist Papers were nothing more than “opinion and comment.”

Another blindness of Lemann’s is that he cannot see the power of multitude, leading to a certain condescension (at another point, writing as an insider, he indicates that amateurs are “welcome”—a patronizing attitude, at best). He writes:

Eyewitness accounts and information-sharing during sudden disasters are welcome, even if they don’t provide a complete report of what is going on in a particular situation. And that is what citizen journalism is supposed to do: keep up with public affairs, especially locally, year in and year out, even when there’s no disaster. Citizen journalists bear a heavy theoretical load. They ought to be fanning out like a great army, covering not just what professional journalists cover, as well or better, but also much that they ignore.

Like any amateur, a citizen journalist dips in and out—and no one will be able to give an entire picture. However, taken as an aggregate, they can (though it is nice to have professionals also doing that—the two can complement each other). Also, there is no “ought” in amateur activities. One has to accept the nature of volunteerism, that people will do what they want—and to trust to the virtue of size. Among a mass of people will be ones wanting to complete just about every task. Yes, as Lemann points out:

The best original Internet journalism happens more often by accident, when smart and curious people with access to means of communication are at the scene of a sudden disaster. Any time that big news happens unexpectedly, or in remote and dangerous places, there is more raw information available right away on the Internet than through established news organizations.

But that’s the point of having citizen journalists around, with that virtue of size. As millions upon millions of people with cell-phone cameras and Internet access can be available to give instant accountings of almost any event, it only remains for the professional journalist to sort through all of this, using professional skills and knowledge, to separate the wheat from the chaff. As I said, there is room for professional and amateur to work together in this new media world.

At one point in his essay, Lemann puts down citizen journalism in a way that only professional journalists will care about:

the content of most citizen journalism will be familiar to anybody who has ever read a church or community newsletter—it’s heartwarming and it probably adds to the store of good things in the world, but it does not mount the collective challenge to power which the traditional media are supposedly too timid to take up.

So? There’s room for all of that. But “most” is not “all”—just look at sites like those of the citizen journalist group ePluribus Media for an example of a site where citizen journalists are expressly trying to go where the commercial news media do not. It’s a big Internet world and much is happening in it—a great deal below Lemann’s (or anyone’s) radar.

Of course, reporting, only one aspect of journalism, will always remain a professional activity, for it goes beyond what a citizen journalist can do. Lemann defines it as:

the tradition by which a member of a distinct occupational category gets to cross the usual bounds of geography and class, to go where important things are happening, to ask powerful people blunt and impertinent questions, and to report back, reliably and in plain language, to a general audience

And that job will always remain important. As I have said, it complements citizen journalism, each making the other stronger. Thing is, even reporting doesn’t have to be the exclusive provenance of the professional. Lemann, however, believes that, even on the Internet, real reporting will be continue as the job of the professional only:

A few places, like the site on Yahoo! operated by Kevin Sites, consistently offer good journalism that has a distinctly Internet, rather than repurposed, feeling. To keep pushing in that direction, though, requires that we hold up original reporting as a virtue and use the Internet to find new ways of presenting fresh material—which, inescapably, will wind up being produced by people who do that full time, not “citizens” with day jobs.

I disagree. There will be professional journalists working primarily online (there already are), but I think that the army of citizen journalists, each providing just a little bit, will always provide something to journalism which the professional cannot—and has not.

I just wish that the professional journalists would recognize this as helping them, not competing with them.