There is lots of blogger reaction to Columbia J-school Dean Nick Lemann's New Yorker piece about why online citizen journalism in the form of blogs isn't historically new and won't (or shouldn't) replace the work of professionals. The article begins with Glenn Reynolds' claim in An Army of Davids that: "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.” The rest of the piece supports Lemann's counter-argument that actually, if bloggers completely replace journalists, we will not be better off. That's true. I agree. Most of the people I know who blog or spend a lot of time poking around the global blogosphere would also agree. Most of the blog posts I've read in reaction to his piece are generally puzzled as to why Lemann chose to focus on such a non-issue. (For examples click here, here, here, here, and here.) Most notably, Jeff Jarvis and Steven Johnson have done a good job of pointing out that Lemann is rehashing the bloggers vs. journalists argument that Jay Rosen rightly declared dead at our Blogging, Journalism & Credibility conference in early 2005. But my favorite response comes from Mitch Ratcliffe who writes:
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.
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.
Hear hear. Bloggers and veteran journalists could all use a very large added dose of humility and mutual respect, at which point maybe we can all figure out how to better inform and support the public discourse.
It's also important to point out that Lemann's article makes a lot more sense when seen in the context of an ongoing and fairly personal debate he's been having with right-wing radio host, blogger, and "blog swarm" artist Hugh Hewitt. Last year Lemann wrote a profile of Hewit for the New Yorker, which sadly is not online - but is mentioned elsewhere on the web. In particular, see Chris Nolan's excellent dissection, with an excerpt, on Personal Democracy Form. She describes how Lemann and Hewitt disagreed strongly on whether it is desirable for journalists to strive for "objectivity" - which Lemann preaches at Columbia - or whether the pretense of "objectivity" is not only impossible but is a sham behind which journalists hide their failings and hidden agendas, which many bloggers on both right and left believe audiences have a right to know. Should a journalist reveal his or her voting record and other biases when covering a political story, for instance? Nolan writes:
Lemann takes the standard Harvard-trained, Columbia-soaked establishment journalist's view of Hewitt and, of course, completely misses the point. His story is based on a refusal to acknowledge that the business of journalism has changed. So, next time you get all gooey-eyed about how the Internet is changing politics, it might be worth having a gander at these few paragraphs from Lemann (which are only on-line because I'm typing them from a printed copy of the magazine).
If Hewitt does write about me, he will surely ask me to reveal whom I voted for in the last Presidential election. I might as well get started with the transparency now. Although I do vote, I'm not to going to tell him. Like the house of the Lord, journalism has many mansions, and the one Hewitt inhabits is surely one of them. But in another of the mansions, reportorial journalism, the object is different. One can be curious or not, fair-minded or not, intellectually honest in the use of the evidence or not, emphatic or not, imprisoned by a perspective or not. For a reportorial journalist to announce his voting record is to undermine his work. It dishonors the struggle to do it right….
This is silly, of course. Although he claims to be transparent, Lemann issues an argument against the very idea. Besides, as a Harvard-educated son of the South, a man who worked for the Texas Monthly, The Atlantic Monthly and the Washington Monthly and who currently holds down a staff job at the New Yorker and his gig at Columbia, there is no way in hell that Lemann didn't vote for Democrat John Kerry.
And that is precisely Hewitt's point. The very one that flies by Lemann's nose. In trying to get establishment Liberals to admit they have a particularly narrow view of the world, Hewitt is trying to show them -- as reporters and writers at Big Media outlets -- how their points of view shape the news. It's not rocket science, this exercise. It's the Socratic method. And it works. Why do you think it's named after a guy who's been dead for more than 2,000 years?
Hewitt's condition for granting an interview to Lemann was that he could in turn profile Lemann and the Columbia Journalism School. Hewitt's resulting article, published this January in The Weekly Standard, is titled The Media's Ancien Regime. Referring to CJS's patron saints Walter Lippmann and Joseph Pulitzer, Hewitt concludes:
Lippmann's world, Pulitzer's world, even Nicholas Lemann's world of the Harvard Crimson from 1972 to 1976--they are all gone. Every conversation with one of the old guard citing the old proof texts comes down to this point: There is too much expertise, all of it almost instantly available now, for the traditional idea of journalism to last much longer. In the past, almost every bit of information was difficult and expensive to acquire and was therefore mediated by journalists whom readers and viewers were usually in no position to second-guess. Authority has drained from journalism for a reason. Too many of its practitioners have been easily exposed as poseurs.
Lemann understands completely what has happened. I think he regrets it. He is certainly trying to salvage the situation. And there is simply no way he can succeed.
I can't read his mind and I haven't asked him, but it wouldn't be surprising if Lemann has been feeling somewhat on the defensive lately - and somewhat in need of explaining to students why they should fork out what amounts to a year's salary for many people in order to get a journalism degree. With this context, Lemann's choice of focus makes more sense, but it also makes me wonder why he chose to avoid addressing the objectivity debate in his New Yorker piece, choosing instead to focus on the comparative quality of amateur vs. professional reporting. In my observation, the most popular bloggers are valued less for the quality of their reporting (when they even do any original reporting) but rather for their authenticity of voice and openness about their political views: when you read Glenn Reynolds, he makes it very clear that he falls somewhere on the libertarian side of right wing. When you read Nick Lemann, you can only guess at his politics as Chris Nolan does, and he won't answer questions if you ask him in person. Which then leaves him and much of the journalistic profession open to all kinds of accusations of hidden political bias and dishonesty. Which in turn leads to a call from the more angry corners of the blogosphere for a reformation. This loss of public faith in American journalism's claim to objectivity - and the question of what should be done about it - is the real story in my view. If people don't trust you, it doesn't matter how impeccable your reporting is, does it? That's what's happening today - the good work of many excellent journalists is being unfairly dismissed as biased by many Americans because of this loss of trust. What should journalism as a profession do about it? Tell those who don't trust in our professionalism that they're ignorant fundamentalist rednecks and if they were smarter they'd realize we're really great reporters after all who really do deserve all those Pulitzers and Peabodys? Hmmm.. great idea... I'm sure that will work...
One final question in the spirit of devil's advocacy: Is the fact that Lemann's latest article avoided mentioning his ongoing argument with Hewitt an exemplary demonstration of the author's own objectivity in handling his subject matter? Or has he demonstrated a disappointing lack of transparency regarding his motivations for writing this particular article in this particular way? Don't be shy. Hit the comments section and give your views... Perhaps Mr. Lemann might accept an invitation to respond?
This post is already long enough for one blog post. In an upcoming post, I'll discuss what I was originally planning to write about: my thoughts on where journalism and journalism education might consider going from here. At the end of his article Lemann writes:
As of now, though, there is not much relation between claims for the possibilities inherent in journalist-free journalism and what the people engaged in that pursuit are actually producing. As journalism moves to the Internet, the main project ought to be moving reporters there, not stripping them away.
Jeff Jarvis responds:
But that, I say, should have been the beginning of his piece: Just how, Dean Lemann, do you propose to do that?
In my next blog post rant, I'll string together some of my own responses to Jeff's question.