The Professional and the Amateur

Bill Keller, Executive Editor of The New York Times, recently spoke about the state of journalism. While his attitude is refreshing and his thoughts are generally on target, I do have a few nits to pick:

Keller, when he speaks of the founders’ view of “the press” elides the fact that the conception of “the press” at the time of the writing of the Constitution and (more significantly) the Bill of Rights was quite different from what it is now. There was no profession associated with “the press,” for one thing—“the press,” in the sense meant by the founders, was an entity of politics, not of news gathering and dispassionate analysis.

In writing that the press should be seen as “supplying citizens with the information to judge whether they are being well served by their government,” Keller ignores the absolutely partisan nature of the press in the early years of the Republic. He says he spends his time explaining “why the founding fathers entrusted someone like me with the right to defy the president.” Thing is, they didn’t. Cloaking himself in the mantle of the founding fathers is a disservice to history and, I believe, to the press of today.

Keller does understand the real problem with Bush’s “distaste for debate and dissent,” however, and has a gut understanding of what the founders were doing—even if he misstates their purposes for the aggrandizement of a profession that did not even then exist—and that is that the success (and sometimes failure, as in the Civil War) of our system is based on the tensions arising from dissent and disagreement. We need these, and “freedom of the press” was meant as protection for the necessary opposition, part of insuring that it always has a chance to oust the government peacefully. That the press, in some respects, has moved away from direct involvement in the political process makes its importance in this no less significant.

Keller implies that polarization is something new. I’d ask him to go back and read Jacksonian newspapers. We’ve always been polarized in America (my grandfather hated Roosevelt with all the passion of my own for Bush), but our news media “papered” this over for quite a long time, developing a mythology of consensus that never existed.

“The supply of what we produce is sadly diminishing. And the demand has never been greater.” But what do you produce, Bill Keller, that is diminishing? Aside from newsprint itself, what exactly of what you do is there less of now than in the past?

“Trustworthy information”? Really? When has newspaper information, for the most part, been trustworthy? Historically, in only a few cases it that ever really been true that news media information has been consistently trustworthy.

“In other words, something is happening out there, and if we don’t understand it, it’s not just the newspaper business that is in peril.” But you don’t understand it, and the peril is real. Bob Dylan, way back in the 1960s, could have been writing to you:

You have many contacts
Among the lumberjacks
To get you facts
When someone attacks your imagination
But nobody has any respect
Anyway they already expect you
To just give a check
To tax-deductible charity organizations

You’ve been with the professors
And they’ve all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks
You’ve been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald’s books
You’re very well read
It’s well known

Because something is happening here
But you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?

There’s something rather elitist in the attitudes you exhibit, Mr. Keller, just as there was for Mister Jones. The reason that you don’t understand what is happening is that you continue to insist on that artificial barrier between the professional and the amateur in journalism. That keeps you from getting out enough into the changing world. That keeps you from understanding just what is going on. It colors your perceptions, building a second barrier, one within you, that makes it all the harder for you to grasp what is going on.

“And at this time of desperate need for reliable news reporting, the supply is dwindling.” Really? Please show me a time when RELIABLE information has been in greater supply.

Keller claims that the professional news media deploys “worldwide a corps of trained, skilled reporters to witness events and help our readers understand them.” What he may be unwilling to face is that the aggregate of interested people around the world with access to the Web can provide the same thing—and maybe even better. He says, “The civic labour performed by journalists on the ground cannot be replicated by legions of bloggers sitting hunched over their computer screens.” Bloggers hunch over their computer screens no more than reporters do. To each group, the computer is a tool. Bloggers, the myth of the person in the basement never leaving notwithstanding, get out in the world every bit as much as reporters do—and many of them know their localities to a depth few reporters will ever attain. “But most of the blog world does not even attempt to report.” Well, Mr. Keller, this is also true of most of the news-media world. Newspapers rely on the AP (for example) every bit as much as bloggers do.

Keller also tries to set journalism apart by “a rigorous set of standards. We have a code of accuracy and fairness we pledge to uphold, a high standard of independence we defend at all costs, and a structure of editorial supervision to enforce our standards.” I would argue that the standards have rarely been upheld. Only a few newspapers and other news-media entities, only the very best, have ever seriously held to standards. His point about an editorial structure, however, is significant. There are entities in the world of “citizen journalism” (ePluribus Media being one of these) that are developing new types of procedures for fact checking and editing—and adherence to standards of journalism is not something that is only found within the profession. Like The New York Times, there are many “citizen journalists” who, for example, “put a higher premium on accuracy than on speed or sensation.” And the link is at the heart of what bloggers do, the way “we show our work.”

Keller sees an inherent difference between the hobbyist and the professional that is, in my view, unwarranted. He wants to imagine that the training of the journalist somehow can be equated to professions where the needs of craft demand strict training and constant updating—as in medicine. Yet his is a field where the talented amateur can often equal the trained professional—something not possible in medicine.

Keller says, “The truth is, people crave more than raw information. What they crave, and need, is independent judgment, someone they can trust to vouch for the information, dig behind it, and make sense of it. The more discerning readers want depth, they want scepticism, they want context, they want the material laid out in a way that honours their intelligence, they might even welcome a little wit and grace and style.” Yes, but that “someone” needn’t be an established news-media entity.

For more on Keller’s talk, see this diary on ePluribus Media.

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