Journalism of all kinds and the process of growing

Journalist Nicholas Lemann has ventured into the territory of defending his profession against the citizen journalist. My guess is that the blogosphere will take it badly. Here's the question: We're all human. so what are we going to do about it?

Nicholas Lemann of The New Yorker has contributed a thoughtful piece to the debate over what a citizen journalism might look like, Amateur Hour: Journalism without journalists. My guess is that the blogosphere will take it badly, minimizing the argument as another "journalism vs. bloggers" rant. It's not.

The debate is not whether bloggers are journalists, though many believe they are, but whether there is a process, the one professionalizedThis isn’t blogging vs. journalism we’re talking about, it’s a matter of how humanity will continue to grow up. as "journalism," that is valuable enough to preserve in an era when barriers to communication are radically lowered. As a journalist-turned-turned blogger, I obviously see blogging as a channel for getting ideas out. I also recognize that what I am doing here and on RatcliffeBlog is not often journalistic. In my case, I draw on the rhetorical styles of essay writing much more often in my blogs. As Lemann points out, though, many bloggers mimic what they think is a good lede and call it journalism.

Over the past couple weeks, since the largely pointless blow-up between myself and another blogger on ZD Net, I've been thinking a lot about the meaning of what goes on in this genre of writing. It seems to me that the telegraphic judgments of bloggers, expressed through the elaborately ritualized act of linking, has become a proxy for actual thinking. Posing nonsensical questions that encourage ranting—journalism vs. blogging or Mac vs. Windows vs. Linux, to name a couple popular tropes—doesn't do much for the collective or individual consciousness.

It seems to me that blogging, as well as the associated phenomenon called "micro-formats," which atomizes "content" (whatever the hell that is) into easily reusable referenceable chunks, has obliterated rational argument, because every little bit of information becomes subject to dispute instead of the public undertaking a critical assessment of ideas presented in context as a system that might hang together. With no logical arguments, everything is argumentative. So, public discourse is becoming more like Ann Coulter's approach to evolution, reduced, again, to rubble here by Jerry Coyne of The New Republic: "What's annoying about Coulter (note: there's more than one thing!) is that she insistently demands evidence for evolution (none of which she'll ever accept), but requires not a shred of evidence for her 'alternative hypothesis.'"

When you can nitpick every little detail, you can avoid the real argument. It's a handy tactic for those doomed to lose an argument never to actually talk about the logic of their position. 

Yes, it's easier to publish today. It was also easier at every point in history when a new technology for disseminating information has been introduced. The most recent example before the blog was the Web page, and prior to that desktop publishing "revolutionized" communication, giving everyone the power to layout a page without the extraordinary hassle of using wax to hold design elements in place on a board that could be photographed for use in a press. If we acknowledge that all of this is progress instead of declaring every new thing a revolution, we might actually make some solid progress as a species instead of insisting that all the old lessons aren't of any value anymore.

The exchange cited by Lemann, mocked up by Jeff Jarvis in his blog, between New York Times writer John Markoff and Jarvis, is exemplary of a polemical attack on ideas and persons in lieu of an actual process of debate from which everyone might learn a little something. The argument becomes a glorification of the polemicist's position rather than an addressing of the alternative view with logical criticism. It's just a dismissal as too "old-fashioned," which is of no use to the person considering the new ideas in light of experience because it accepts the "new" for the sake of its newness.

Nevertheless, the advocates of revolution persist. Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit in his book, An Army of Davids: How Markets and Technology Empower Ordinary People to Beat Big Media, Big Government and Other Goliaths (as self-reinforcing a title as a libertarian could frame up as a statement of everything holy to him), writes:  “Millions of Americans who were once in awe of the punditocracy now realize that  anyone can do this stuff—and that many unknowns can do it better than the lords of the  profession." Alas, except for those who want to set pundits up for a well-deserved knocking down, no one I know was in awe of these people. Pundits and punditry have always been a form of performance that any thinking person could see through. Knocking them down does nothing to address reality, only the perception that these people have influence. Typically, though, the pundits and big media are portrayed as defining discourse rather than what they were actually doing, which is only participating in it.

Lemann points to a recent book by Mark Knights, Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture, which emphasizes the same transition during the 17th century, when pamphlets began to appear at a prodigious rate in England, that blogs represent today, a short lead time to publication. The same was true of desktop publishing—it became possible to conceive a page and have it in print hours rather than weeks later.  Blogs are a great format for reacting to events, for injecting spin and "analysis," some of which is valid, but much of it spurious—just as almost all human communicaton is; for every great letter, pamphlet, book, film or blog posting, there are tens of thousands of throwaways. (Knights' book is incredibly expensive. I also recommend Elizabeth Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Social Change)

It's exciting, nevertheless, to have that ability to inject some spin and there's a deserved enthusiasm among those advocating a citizen journalism, among whom I count myself. Yet, many of the citizen journalism proponents have embraced that excitement as the defining difference when it's far more likely that diligence and the ability to make a process of finding and reporting information through real-time channels will determine the future of media.

I like Jay Rosen's idea of, a swarm financing mechanism for citizen journalism, but I think it is destined to fail for precisely the reason that it is aiming to do "stories the regular news media doesn't do, can't do, wouldn't do, or already screwed up." Why will that fail? Because the many people funding reportage are unlikely to agree on what is the "correct version" of facts and, so, are not likely to hang together to support the really hard tedious work of journalists, which has almost no flavor of immediate gratification. I like that it capitalizes on the excitement represented by the medium, but the best we can hope for is competing versions of reality funded by groups that want verification of their views. It's the human way, to reinforce belief rather than challenge our views. Journalism, the profession, was an attempt to circumvent that human tendency.

What must be embraced by the citizen journalists out there is the rigor and self-criticism that journalism represents. Where Nicholas Lemann's critique of citizen journalism falls down is his lack of critical reflection on journalism itself. Yes, most citizen journalism today looks like church newsletter writing, but so does a lot of "real" journalism. The celebrity-and-spin mechanism has taken such thorough hold of the mainstream that good journalism is the exception there, too.

Forgive me for quoting at length from Martin Heidegger, who wrote in his book, What Is Called Thinking?

We should fall victim to a disastrous self-deception if we were to take the view that a haughty contempt is all that is needed to let us escape from the imperceptible power of the one-sided view.... The one-sided view, which nowhere pays any attention any longer to the essence of things, has puffed itself up into an all-sidedness which in turn is masked so as to look harmless and natural.... It reduces everything to a univocity of concepts and specifications the precision of which not only correspond to, but has the same essential origin as, the precision of the technological process.... The symptom, at first quite superficial, of the growing power of one-track thinking is the increase everywhere of designations consisting of abbreviations of words, or combinations of their initials.... the question remains what kind of order is heralded here in the spreading of this kind of language.

Here's where my own recent ruminations about blogging cross with this wider discussion of citizen journalism. The blog aesthetic is frequently invoked as "write short," and nowhere so frequently is this criticism of blogs deployed as when someone is offering a political or social view of technology, which has its specifications and acronyms that separate it from normal debate. Too often, engineers insist that they have the right to shape society without any input because they've injected a foreign language between processes people use and the people that will use them.

All design is political and should be discussed, because designs shape the future of power, human interaction, teleology, ontology and carry immense social consequences. There is nothing that affects people that people should not discuss. Yet we often hear from the technical community that they should be left alone, that "Congress (or whatever non-technical body) should leave well enough alone and not try to be engineers." The problem with that view is that engineered systems are not logical, they are only sort of practical and they are coherent from a particular perspective on the goals and costs of the system being designed. Sure, an engineer can string together a series of arguments like beads on a string to show why their system works, but it will be internally referential to elements of the system and missing the components of thought relating to the system's impact on people.

Asking questions about those systems is necessary, even important (or, I suppose if I didn't believe that, I wouldn't do this for the financial scraps involved). In every sense the "people formerly known as the audience" are being told that they should stay out of the debates about their future access to information, whether by the organizations that want absolute control of "content" (e.g., Hollywood, the RIAA, etc.) or those that advocate a purely technical interruption of all property rights that leaves it to God to sort out the consequences later. No, we—that is, all of us—have to live through this so-called revolution without a lot of unnecessary upheaval introduced by polemics for the pursuit of the least significant form of progress: Change for change's sake.

Revolutionaries certainly can be huge winners, taking control of and leading the resulting society, but that's the same all-or-none/zero-sum politics of the past, so there really is no revolution unless we overcome the tendency to divide into extremes and fight for supremacy. Evolution, the patient process, has paid far greater dividends for all involved, objectively speaking.

Which brings me back to Mr. Lemann's piece and the enduring value of journalism, a practice that in its current form is, and all previous forms was, far from perfect.

The only thing that journalism as a professional endeavor does is recognize that its practitioners are human, prone to mistakes and bias like humans are. The process of journalism is to review the resulting reporting for mistakes and errors of omission or commission, in that order of escalating importance. When journalism "listens" to the market in the sense that Glenn Reynolds and Jeff Jarvis insist is the defining difference between journalism and citizen journalism, that is reflexively, it produces the pablum that is The View, Entertainment Tonight and The CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, more stuff that reinforces our beliefs without challenging our intellects.

I want us to think and debate as a society, and citizen journalism, especially when it learns from the standards of professional journalism, can help us do that. The more voices the better, but let's set up the expectation that participation must be informed and rigorous in its self-criticism, the same as the Founding Fathers believed, conducted in the midst of change rather than seeking a conclusion that exists whole and unassailed by change on either side of tremendous social upheaval. History is a living document, not a process with a defined goal; let us, therefore, have processes that repair human shortcomings and leave history to history while we sort out the problem of living today.

This isn't blogging vs. journalism we're talking about, it's a matter of how humanity will continue to grow up.