In Defense of Internet Journalism
A lot of people say they get their news exclusively online, that they no longer rely on the printed word, or even broadcast news, for information. But, when you consider where most original reporting develops (that would be the printed pages and Web sites of newspapers wire services, televisions and other traditional news-gathering operations, then, really, most people still depend on us dinosaurs. They're just consuming our work in a different form.
In general, I don't think anyone will dispute that print journalism has an advantage over Internet journalism, by one or two orders of magnitude, in the number of personnel engaged in shoe-leather reporting. Nobody will dispute that the vast majority of content that appears in online journalistic venues comes from reporters working in traditional print media.
These facts are not in dispute. The problem is with the conclusions people like Mr. Turner draw from them, which manage to miss the fundamental significance of network organization.
The revolutionary significance of Internet journalism lies not in how it generates content, but in the use it makes of existing content. Bloggers make better use of the dead tree media's own content than the dead tree media itself does.
To repeat yet again, nobody disputes that print journalism has an enormous army of reporters on the ground, far beyond the resources online journalism has at its direct disposal. But as Lincoln once said to General McClellan, “If you're not going to use that army, may I borrow it?”
I don't think Mr. Turner and those of like mind fully understand the implications of their own argument. For example, most of what Mr. Turner himself does is not direct reporting, but filtering, selecting, editing and combining the content of reporters working for the Morning News. Aside from the fact that both he and the reporters are within the imaginary walls of the same corporate entity, how is what he does any different from what a blogger does in using content generated by other people, and using his own critical intelligence to decide what is useful and relevant and what is not, and exactly how to combine it? Even worse for Mr. Turner's position, a major part of the content he includes in his newspaper is not generated internally at all, but from reporters working for other organizations. A considerable portion of the state, national and international news that appears in The Morning News is generated by the Associated Press. The phrase “hoist by his own petard” comes to mind. As Matt Yglesias put it:
Convention dictates that if I sit at a desk and read a transcript of what the press secretary said and then write about the transcript, I’m a lowly cheeto-eater. But if I sit in the White House press room and transcribe what the press secretary said, and then write about the transcript then that’s journalism.
Avedon Carol, in less flattering terms, wrote:
Hm, let's see... I can go to whitehouse.gov and read everything administration officials have to say on the record, or I can spend money to buy a newspaper and read a repetition of selected quotes from that said material. What should I do?
If that's all newspapers are good for, what are newspapers good for?
The formal difference between what Mr. Turner does and what a blogger does consists primarily of Mr. Turner's limitation by the legal fiction of corporate boundaries. The blogger or other online journalist is every bit as much an editor as Mr. Turner, in the sense of editing and recombining content generated almost entirely by other people. But while Mr. Turner is limited to the stable of reporters available to him in-house, supplemented by syndicated material from the wire services, for the blogger the entire world of journalism is “in-house.”
More importantly, while both traditional editors and bloggers make use of second-hand material they did not themselves write, bloggers make better use of it.
Bloggers may well be unoriginal, in the sense that they only link to what's already out there rather than reporting new information. But they use what's out there in ways that most traditional newspapers refrain from doing. That is, they put it together. They quote a factual claim from one source, and then immediately provide a hyperlink to information that provides a factual context to the claim. They take bits and pieces of news from different sources, aggregate it, and draw conclusions as to its meaning.
This advantage of networked, online journalism—making better use of traditional journalism's content than traditional journalism itself does—is only one particular illustration of the more general advantage of networked, open-source culture. Open-source culture is about eliminating proprietary boundaries on content, and leaving anyone and everyone free to build on and improve it without regard to organizational boundaries. The main difference between Windows and Linux lies not in what the primary code-writers do, but in what user and developer communities can do with other people's code.
For example, consider proprietary software like Microsoft Office. If you look in the typical office store, the price can run from $100 to $200 or even more. And when you “buy” it, you find you don't really own it at all. The CD is disabled after the first time you install it, and you can't transfer the file from (say) your desktop to your notebook for your own convenience.
On the other hand, I'm writing this piece on the rich text editor that comes with Open Office—installed with a CD that cost me all of ten bucks from an OO distro. And unlike proprietary software, when you buy open-source software like Open Office or Linux, it's really yours. You can transfer it from one machine to another at your convenience. A user with code-writing skills who thinks the software would be better with the addition of some feature or other, or that the user interface needs tweaking, is entirely free to pop the hood and tinker with it, and make the new version freely available to anyone who prefers that. Imagine doing that to MS Vista: Bill Gates and the Justice Department, between them, would have you waterboarded at Gitmo.
Online journalism follows the same open-source model: regardless of who generates content, it “belongs” to anyone who can make better use of it than the original creator.
So far, we've considered mainly the superior use that online journalism makes of the reporting that's out there. But even worse for traditional journalism, traditional reporters themselves make very poor use of the material they themselves are reporting on.
My reference above to one particular practice of bloggers—aggregating information from disparate sources and drawing conclusions as to its meaning—is anathema to the ethos of mainstream journalism.
In his commentary piece, Mr. Turner presents an idealized version of traditional journalism's function: “objectivity, truth-telling, acting as the community's watchdog....” Unfortunately, the kind of “objectivity” practiced by establishment journalism is eminently deserving of ironic quotation marks.
Mainstream journalism is heavily influenced by Walter Lippman's model of "professional objectivity," which in practice means the journalist pretends to be stupider than he really is. The journalist, in order to project an air of "neutrality," deliberately refrains both from drawing obvious conclusions from factual evidence, and from going beyond quotes from the spokemen for "both sides" to report factual evidence as to who's telling the truth. Fake "objectivity" means not drawing obvious conclusions from the facts, and pretending not to notice facts that reflect on the truth what one side or the other claims. Appealing independently to an objective factual realm, to present information that doesn't come from "either side," would itself be (according to the current institutional mindset) "taking sides." But to the extent that the "two sides" can't both be right at the same time, truth itself is "biased." There is no way to maintain a pose of neutrality except by avoiding independent recourse to the factual realm.
There are serious problems with the “both sides” model of “objective reporting.” As Justin Lewis described it in Project Censored Yearbook 2000,
The norms of “objective reporting” thus involve presenting “both sides” of an issue with very little in the way of independent forms of verification… [A] journalist who systematically attempts to verify facts–to say which set of facts is more accurate–runs the risk of being accused of abandoning their objectivity by favoring one side over another….
….[J]ournalists who try to be faithful to an objective model of reporting are simultaneously distancing themselves from the notion of independently verifiable truth….
The “two sides” model of journalistic objectivity makes news reporting a great deal easier since it requires no recourse to a factual realm. There are no facts to check, no archives of unspoken information to sort through…. If Tweedledum fails to challenge a point made by Tweedledee, the point remains unchallenged.
Former Washington Post assistant managing editor Karen DeYoung (as reported by slactivist):
“We are inevitably the mouthpiece for whatever administration is in power. … If the president stands up and says something, we report what the president said.”
Got that? So if an elected official stands up and says the moon is made out of green cheese, a newspaper is not obliged to challenge this assertion.
That means that when the “opposition” is as gutless and contemptible as the Democrats have been over Iraq these past six years or so, the public is essentially screwed when it comes to information that might challenge the administration’s version of reality.
My favorite exposition of this model of “journalism” was made by The Daily Show’s Rob Corddry:
STEWART: Here’s what puzzles me most, Rob. John Kerry’s record in Vietnam is pretty much right there in the official records of the US military, and haven’t [sic] been disputed for 35 years?
CORDDRY: That’s right, Jon, and that’s certainly the spin you’ll be hearing coming from the Kerry campaign over the next few days.
STEWART: Th-that’s not a spin thing, that’s a fact. That’s established.
CORDDRY: Exactly, Jon, and that established, incontravertible fact is one side of the story.
STEWART: But that should be — isn’t that the end of the story? I mean, you’ve seen the records, haven’t you? What’s your opinion?
CORDDRY: I’m sorry, my opinion? No, I don’t have “o-pin-i-ons”. I’m a reporter, Jon, and my job is to spend half the time repeating what one side says, and half the time repeating the other. Little thing called ‘objectivity’ — might wanna look it up some day.
STEWART: Doesn’t objectivity mean objectively weighing the evidence, and calling out what’s credible and what isn’t?
CORDDRY: Whoa-ho! Well, well, well — sounds like someone wants the media to act as a filter! [high-pitched, effeminate] “Ooh, this allegation is spurious! Upon investigation this claim lacks any basis in reality! Mmm, mmm, mmm.” Listen buddy: not my job to stand between the people talking to me and the people listening to me.
Rather than simply reporting "he said, she said," journalists should provide the information necessary to evaluate the truthfulness of the competing claims. And although most mainstream journalists don't do this, it's a major part of what blogs are all about. Bloggers do exactly what mainstream journalists should be doing, but aren't. To take one example: When Hillary Clinton or George Bush repeats the canard that Saddam "threw the inspectors out of Iraq" in 1998, a good journalist would mention in the same article the objective fact that the inspectors were not kicked out, but withdrawn. When Dick Cheney denies having said something, a good journalist would need a good five minutes with Google to track down the original quote and include it, with a reference to the source, immediately below Cheney's denial. And Tim Russert, if he'd been doing his job, would have had a video clip all ready to go in case of Cheney's denial. A good reporter would never quote official Israeli statements about Hamas' use of “human shields” without an accompanying quote of credible third-party sources on the lack of any evidence mortars were deployed in schools, or quote official Israeli statements on the avoidance of civilian casualties without reference to the overwhelming evidence that they have used white phosphorous as a deliberate weapon of terror.
It's quite true that many (or even most) bloggers are “one-sided,” or “have an ax to grind,” and that they tend to filter the data to construct an idiosyncratic picture of reality.
But so do mainstream journalists. The difference is that mainstream journalism's biased account, lurking behind the facade of phony “objectivity,” is biased mainly toward an official picture of the world, a picture based on official sources, talking points and press releases.
Mainstream journalism, in a futile attempt to seem “less opinionated,” avoids reporting a great deal of information that is newsworthy in the sense of shedding light on the official version of things.
I say the attempt is “futile” because in practice it amounts to mainstream journalism uncritically promoting an unexamined opinion of its own.
Mainstream journalism is unconsciously biased toward the official version of reality. The “both sides” model, Brent Cunningham wrote,
exacerbates our tendency to rely on official sources, which is the easiest, quickest way to get both the “he said” and the “she said,” and, thus, “balance.” According to numbers from the media analyst Andrew Tyndall, of the 414 stories on Iraq broadcast on NBC, ABC, and CBS from last September to February, all but thirty-four originated at the White House, Pentagon, and State Department. So we end up with too much of the “official” truth.
More important, objectivity makes us wary of seeming to argue with the president — or the governor, or the CEO — and risk losing our access….
Finally, objectivity makes reporters hesitant to inject issues into the news that aren’t already out there. “News is driven by the zeitgeist,” says Jonathan Weisman, “and if an issue isn’t part of the current zeitgeist then it will be a tough sell to editors.” But who drives the zeitgeist, in Washington at least? The administration.
Some 40% of newspaper column inches, the last I read, are taken up by material generated by public spokesmen, press releases, and PR departments.
Another version of the same phenomenon is wire service reporters writing stories on foreign events from their hotel rooms, using handouts from the U.S. Embassy. A good example is AP coverage of the anti-Chavez coup in Venezuela in the spring of 2002. After the removal of Chavez, the White House stuck to the talking point that he “resigned,” and their doggies at the Associated Press stuck to it faithfully. Indymedia and Narco News Bulletin, meanwhile, reported that Chavez had not resigned, and was being held incommunicado.
When the people of Venezuela, for once, managed to thwart the will of the Killer Klowns and blood money men in Washington and restore Chavez, guess what? It turned out the White House and its AP stooges had been lying, and Indymedia and NarcoNews were telling the truth.
Cunningham’s remarks above on loss of access are far from hypothetical. Consider, for example, the Pentagon’s reaction to Washington Post reporter Tom Ricks:
In his more than two decades covering the military, Ricks has developed many sources, from brass to grunts. This, according to the current Pentagon, is a problem.
The Pentagon’s letter of complaint to Post executive editor Leonard Downie had language charging that Ricks casts his net as widely as possible and e-mails many people.
Details of the complaints were hard to come by. One Pentagon official said in private that Ricks did not give enough credence to official, on-the-record comments that ran counter to the angle of his stories.
If you want an indictment of maintream journalism and its stenography for the powerful, you need go no further than establishment journalism's apologetics for Judith Miller.
It is much harder to root out the hidden pro-official bias of mainstream journalism, precisely because of its pretense of objectivity.
Honestly promoting a definite viewpoint is the best way to advance objective truth. This is what blogging and other forms of online journalism do. They are much closer to the adversarial journalistic model of the nineteenth century, the model of Greeley and Godkin—a vast improvement, in my opinion.
Truth advances dialectically. Rather than adopt a pose of fake neutrality, by pretending to be more stupid and gullible than he actually is, it's better that a journalist make the best case that he can for the truth as he sees it, using both evidence and logic, and then allow his case to be subjected to ruthless cross-examination by others either challenging the evidence or providing counter-evidence.
In the nineteenth century, this cross-examination function was exercised by rival newspapers tearing each other's accounts to shreds, exactly like attorneys for two parties tearing each other's briefs apart on grounds of fact and logic for the benefit of a jury.
The Internet makes the dialectical approach far more feasible and effective than ever before. Consider the practice known as “Fisking.” When a blogger presents a one-sided version of reality, guess what happens? He's hyperlinked by an opposing blogger, who then puts his one-sided account into perspective by linking to the information he left out.
Thanks to the Worldwide Web, it's possible to systematically dissect a piece of reporting, subject it to relentless factual evaluation point by point, and post one's criticism with a hyperlink to the object of one's criticism. In making these point-by-point criticisms, one may hyperlink to the entire world of fact available from every online newspaper or wire service in the world, statistics from online government documents, and the like. And if someone else thinks you're attacking a strawman, or misrepresenting the object of your criticism, they can do the same to you. It never stops.
Perhaps we're moving toward an ideal division of labor. The Web seems to be, increasingly, separating the functional task of reporting from the old aggregating roles of newspapers and their editorial staff. Bloggers and other online journalists will probably never duplicate anywhere near the resources traditional journalism has at its disposal. But so long as bloggers can hyperlink to mainstream journalists, and perform the kind of analysis the journalists themselves should be doing but aren't, it doesn't really matter all that much. In other words, blogs are the new newspapers and bloggers the new editors, and the dead tree media's reporters are one big wire service; the old dead tree newspaper organizations just pay the salaries of reporters whose content is better used elsewhere.
In addition, Mr. Turner makes several other points. To take the least substantial one first, he takes a whack at traditional journalism's favorite strawman: the purported anonymity of bloggers and their lack of accountability.
And blogs? Been doing those a while too. We call them columns. The difference is that most columns report the writer's name and identity to the reader (based on the antiquated notion that what's written has more credibility if everyone actually knows who the writer is).
Now, it's true that many bloggers are anonymous. But there are countless bloggers, many of them prominent figures with roots in academia, politics, and even (gasp) traditional journalism, who blog under their own names. The big names, with readerships in the hundreds of thousands, include Matt Yglesias, Markos Moulitsas, Duncan Black, Arianna Huffington, Glenn Reynolds, Alex Tabarrok, Paul Krugman, Dean Baker, and Josh Marshall. There are online organizations like Democracy Now, Counterpunch and Alternet with entire stables of online writers. And one evaluates the credibility of one's news sources, anonymous or not, the same as one evaluates print sources—through one's experience, over time, of who's dependable and who's not.
His other major point involves blogging's alleged reinvention of the wheel.
And here's another little secret: News executives have asked all those questions about engaging the general public before. They've tried everything, from “citizen” journalism to increased use of graphics to interactivity. Only, in the old days, it was called soliciting news tips... and accepting letters to the editor.
Again, this misses the most revolutionary aspect of network culture: the replacement of an old broadcast, gatekeeper-controlled model of journalism with a many-to-many model.
The problem with the old model of “soliciting news tips” and “accepting letters to the editor” is that you needed the gatekeepers' permission to talk back to them. Those terms “soliciting” and “accepting” say it all.
My own experience with letters to the editor is instructive. Time and again, I have spent hours painstakingly poring over a draft letter, paring off a bit here and a bit there to get within the newspaper's word-count requirements, while tweaking the wording to get the precise effect I was aiming at. After all that effort I submitted the letter, only to have the wording gratuitously changed by the letters editor—not because of obscenity, potential libel, or length constraints, but only because the wording violated the editor's personal stylistic sensibilities. In some cases, the changes did violence to the meaning I had carefully attempted to construct, and undone hours of my work.
I have not had a letter published in the Morning News since December 2003, when I complained of such alterations to a letter they had published. Anyone who's interested can read an online version of the letter here, with careful indications of the specific changes the editor made, and judge for himself whether it did violence to the message I attempted to convey in the original version. Since my rather angry complaint on that occasion, my subsequent letters have been rejected without comment. I have not even attempted to submit a letter in two or three years.
The whole point of a letter to the editor, supposedly, is to reflect the autonomous voice of the community. It's not supposed to reflect the stylistic sensibilities of the editorial staff. It's entirely understandable (even if frequently done in an arbitrary way and with unnecessary lack of courtesy) for the editors to gratuitously alter the language that appears over a reporter's or op-ed writer's byline, because he is presumed to represent their organization and anything he writes reflects on it. But (aside from a limited set of cases like potential libel or obscenity—and even then brackets and ellipses should be used, as a matter of simple honesty, to indicate changes) changing the wording and import of a letter to the editor violates the supposed purpose of such letters: to provide the public with a forum to express their opinions in their own words. After all, the writer is not working for the newspaper The whole point of a letter to the editor is precisely that it doesn't represent the viewpoint of the newspaper or its staff. To cross that boundary, in a gratuitous and arbitrary manner, displays a fundamental lack of respect for the readers. It's pretty hard to “engage a general public” that not only requires your permission to talk back, but finds that you wind up putting your words in their mouths even when you allow the pretense of backtalk.
The network revolution changed this state of affairs beyond recognition. As described by Yochai Benkler in The Wealth of Network, the broadcast model of journalism and entertainment followed, as a matter of necessity, from the enormous capitalization requirements to enter the market. The conventional business model in the music, newspaper and radio industries required, at a bare minimum, capital outlays of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The main function of the large business firms that controlled the media was to govern those big concentrations of capital; their gatekeeping function, and the one-to-many broadcast model, followed from the technical necessities of the case.
As some wag said, freedom of the press is great, as long as you own a press. But guess what? Now more than half the households in America do own a press. The desktop computer, the main item of capital equipment required to be an Internet journalist, costs maybe $1000—compared to the outlays of hundreds of thousands of dollars required to start a newspaper in the old days. And the combination of digital reproduction and the Worldwide Web makes it possible to distribute one's writing, at zero marginal cost, to anyone with a computer and Internet connection. For the first time ever, anyone can write for an audience of millions at almost no cost. We can not only talk back to the traditional media without the permission of the Letters page editor, but we can talk to each other about the dead tree media, and criticize its product, in ways that the traditional media doesn't always like.
Finally, although I conceded Mr. Turner's point about the total resources devoted to print vs. online media, in general terms, it's a concession that must be qualified in many particular cases. In many cases, the network culture's alternative means of generating content has been useful for bypassing the “professionalization of everything” and the institutional culture of the establishment media.
The traditional print media, as watchdogs, have become increasingly toothless over the years. Even at the largest newspapers of record, traditionally home to the largest concentrations of investigative talents, the corporate bean counters in the boardrooms have discovered that stenography and celebrity gossip are far less expensive, and far less irritating both to advertisers and the parent conglomerate.
What original reporting does get done, increasingly, is the preserve of either small radical periodicals like Mother Jones, In These Times, and Z Magazine, or of Internet journalism. The Internet has become home to some of the best investigative journalists, like Robert Parry, Robert Fiske, for whom there is little place in the old world of the print media.
Some stories wouldn't have been stories at all if it weren't for the Internet. The Sinclair Media boycott and the Diebold files stories would barely have been blips on the mainstream media's radar, had it not been for their propagation online.
Indymedia's network approach to journalism has allowed local activists to report first-hand accounts of police riots at anti-globalization protests, bypassing the sanitized versions published by the local press and wire services (often based on uncritical regurgitations of official accounts by the police). I already mentioned the value of Giordano's Narco News Network in reporting what's really going on in areas like Venezuela, Chiapas and Oaxaca, while AP reporters wrote stories from U.S. Embassy handouts.
At the local level, the print media's watchdog role was a lot more credible when there were several small, independent newspapers in each town. Most people today are lucky even to live in a one-newspaper town. Most of the local newspapers in Northwest Arkansas, including the former Springdale News, have been consolidated into a single regional paper—the aforementioned Morning News. And the Morning News itself is owned by the Donrey Media chain. In most communities, the one big newspaper tends to be a part of the very power structure over which it is expected to exercise its watchdog functions.
In the colorful language of Michael Bates, of Batesline Blog, the Tulsa World is part of Tulsa's Cockroach Caucus:
The World is more than just an observer of the local scene. It is an integral part of the tight social network that has run local politics for as long as anyone can remember. This network... has pursued its own selfish interests under the name of civic progress, with disastrous results for the ordinary citizens of Tulsa and its metropolitan area....
The same small number of connected insiders circulates from one city authority, board, or commission to another, controlling city policy, but beyond the reach of the democratic process.
Like most communities in America, we have our own Cockroach Caucus here in Northwest Arkansas. Besides the usual suspects in the city councils and chambers of commerce, its centerpiece is the Northwest Arkansas Council, a nominally private organization formed by local government and business elites to lobby for highway and airport pork and other corporate welfare (ahem, excuse me, “infrastructure funding to benefit the local economy”). Its chief personages are ex-officio representatives of Tyson, Wal-Mart, J.B. Hunt trucking, and the Jim Lindsey real estate empire. I believe most metropolitan areas have a similar organization running things behind the scenes.
Any time the usual suspects in the Cockroach Caucus, the local Rotary Club yahoos and suchlike, attempt to railroad through another initiative with mass-distributed yard signs and all the rest of their prefab propaganda campaign, you can pretty safely lay money that the Morning News will come out in favor of it.
If the Morning News has an editorial philosophy, it can be summed up as managerialism. It channels the mindset of Herbert Croly, spiritual father of the Progressive Movement of a century ago, essentially the worldview of the New Middle Class of managers and professionals that had sprung up to control the new large organizations, the corporations and government agencies, that came to dominate American society in the late 19th century. Its central theme was the replacement of politics with ideologically neutral expertise: in FDR's memorable phrase, the era of the politician had been succeeded by the era of the enlightened administrator. This was the ideological foundation of the consensus capitalism, or corporate liberalism, that dominated American society for most of the 20th century. The Morning News's approach to everything is to oppose controversy and division, to promote consensus, to stand back and let the proper authorities do their work. The Morning News never met a regional commission or intergovernmental authority it didn't like. The Morning News, for one, welcomes our new David Gergen overlords.
The last and best bastion of independent news was an alternative biweekly newspaper in Fayetteville: the Grapevine. It regularly printed its own investigative reporting on the less savory doings of the Cockroach Caucus. Among other things, it carried numerous articles on the behind-the-scenes machinations of the Northwest Arkansas Council to railroad through a regional airport behind the public's back (I described them at considerable length myself here). Most of the shady machinations of the NWA Council and the rest of the local good ol' boy network was reported only in the Grapevine. And it's been gone since the early '90s, due in large part to those high capital outlays required to operate an old-style newspaper.