Samuel Freedman: On The Difference Between The Amateur And The Pro. Instead of providing the ultimate marketplace of ideas, however, cable TV and the Internet have become the ultimate amen corner, where nobody ever need encounter an opinion, much less a fact, that runs counter to what he or she already believes. To treat an amateur as equally credible as a professional, to congratulate the wannabe with the title “journalist,” is only to further erode the line between raw material and finished product. For those people who believe that editorial gate-keeping is a form of censorship, if not mind control, then I suppose the absence of any mediating intelligence is considered a good thing.
Freedman’s piece, which appears on the CBS News Public Eye site, raises some fair questions but sinks irrevocably into attacks on straw men, several of which you’ll find in just the single paragraph quoted above. And like so many folks who appear to wish ill for citizen journalism out of hand, he turns the situation into an either-or matter, when the reality is that we’re talking about an ecosystem that can and should support a variety of journalistic endeavors. (As Doc Searls has said so memorably, the logic to adopt is AND, not OR.)
The portion of his attack I’ve quoted above has several examples of a technique that seems almost deliberately to mis-state what’s actually happening. For example, the evidence doesn’t support the “amen corner” suggestion (note that it’s less an assertion of what’s going on than a speculation about what might be); early actual data runs counter to the echo-chamber worry Freedman cites.
Another straw man is the notion that editorial support equates to censorship or mind control. Citizens frequently cover subjects the traditional media ignore. Whether the professionals don’t bother with such topics due to nonfeasance, malfeasance or financial limitations is beside the point; I’d argue that some coverage, however amateurish, is better than none at all.
And his nostalgia for “finished product” misses several points, not least that the manufacturing model of journalism was appropriate for a 20th Century system of actual manufacturing on periodic deadlines, but makes less sense now. The publication or broadcast today should be the middle of the process, not the “finished” end of it; the discussion that transpires can teach everyone, including the reporter who did the original, and we then iterate to catch up with the latest information. Little in a Web-enabled world is truly finished, and that’s not a bug but a feature.
In his unhappiness that some amateurs are being given the title “journalist,” Freedman’s real issue is what he states earlier:
To its proponents, citizen journalism represents a democratization of media, a shattering of the power of the unelected elite, a blow against the empire of Big Brother. Citizen journalism does not merely challenge the notion of professionalism in journalism but completely circumvents it. It is journalism according to the ethos of indie rock ‘n’ roll: Do It Yourself.
I’m a fairly prominent proponent of citizen journalism, and I do agree it’s part of a wider democratization. But far from seeing it as a “shattering of the power of the unelected elite” and a total circumvention of the professionals, I’ve repeatedly said this is about expanding the number of voices. I wouldn’t mind shattering the arrogance that Freedman’s essay exemplifies, but one of my goals is to spread and share the power for everyone’s benefit.
One valuable outcome of this process, among many, is to give the professionals new tools to do their jobs better. If Freedman and his professional colleagues at the New York Times did a little more listening and a little less lecturing, they’d do even better journalism than the (mostly) excellent work they already do today. But listening would mean recognizing that some of those indie-label journalists were doing some damn fine work of their own.
No one disputes that a considerable amount of what people call citizen journalism is more data than finished “product.” Why is this a problem, anyway? The citizen observer, or witness, can now get the word out to the world without having to go through the filter of the professional journalist, but it takes a certain amount of skills to thread everything together into a coherent form. Better journalists can do this especially well. It’ s not traditional gate-keeping, though, however much they might wish for that role to be uniquely theirs. It’s a kind of guidance, not just top-down instruction, and it’s not as easy as it sounds.
Citizen journalism doesn’t replace the professionals; at least I hope not. We need the best of what the pros do. (I’m not addressing the business issues here that are undermining the pros’ business models; that’s a somewhat separate but definitely important topic.)
But we are going to have to all recognize that the old systems are expanding. We are learning new ways to gather, sift and recombine what we know and learn together. We can all win in that game.
Freedman sees only the amen corners and raw data of the Internet, and pines for the old days when the elite told us what they thought mattered. He might look a bit more deeply, because he’d find that he’s been missing quite a lot.