Friday 31 May 2002

Bloggers as journalists. Just say no.

Towards the end of We Were Soldiers, the survivors of the 1st Battalion, 7th Cavalry are coming to terms with the cost of their “victory” when a helicopter lands and a gaggle of journalists spills out onto the battlefield.

They ask the commander, Lt. Col. Hal Moore, a series of inane questions and, when he turns away from them in weary amazement, they switch their attention to Joe Galloway, the UPI reporter who has spent three days in hell with the American forces. Galloway fast-talked his way into the combat zone, won the soldiers’ respect by sharing the danger and hardship and by exchanging his cameras for a weapon at a particularly desperate point in the fighting, before finally making the notes and pictures that would tell the story of one of the most important engagements of the Vietnam War.

When Galloway too turns his back on them in disgust, the intention of the scene is unmistakable: journalists with integrity are the rarest of the rare; most of them are charlatans, time-servers, or hacks.

Robert Young Pelton makes a similar point:

Why was Barbara Walters in Saudi Arabia? Did she get up one day, buy a ticket and take a camera in with her? No. She was invited by the government as part of a P.R. campaign to convince the American public that the Saudis who flew the planes into the buildings had nothing to do with the country of Saudi Arabia. That’s an overt P.R. campaign. Why do you think the military invites journalists into a combat area? Because they know there’s going to be a nice clean operation and it’ll look good when we blow stuff up and they’ll write about how we’re winning the war.

The comparative rarity of journalists like Galloway and writers like Pelton (who refuses to call himself a journalist) has me wondering about this desperate desire of bloggers to supplant the role of “professional journalists.” I mean, what’s the big deal here? Am I the only inhabitant of Blogaria who didn’t get a shot of Journalism is the Holiest Profession serum when I was eight years old?

Why would anyone, given the opportunity to participate in a brand new (and relatively unfettered) conversational medium aspire to mimic conventional broadcast or print journalism?

And yet I shouldn’t be surprised. Every new means of expression starts out by imitating the mindset and techniques of the one it is intended to displace. The first movies were theatrical plays filmed with a static camera pointed at an (outdoor) stage. The pioneers of television imagined they were adding images to radio programs.

What combines news, opinion, and pictures and comes out every day? A newspaper. Oh! A weblog has news and opinions and pictures and comes out every day too. So bloggers must be journalists. Or their handmaidens. John Hiler’s article Blogosphere: the emerging Media Ecosystem explains it all in mind-numbing detail, complete with diagrams that map the flow of information between bloggers and print journalists. But—to borrow a metaphor from Robert Kagan—Hiler’s model boils down to this: bloggers do the shopping, chop up the ingredients, and wash the dishes; while print journalists get to cook (and eat) the meal.

We have the opportunity to do something magical, original, and true. And you want to be journalists. Give me a fucking break.

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Comments

Damn straight. The two work together - not one replacing the other.

Posted by: Karl on 31 May 2002 at 12:47 AM

This is a fresh viewpoint on the topic. Trying to relate weblogging with traditional journalism is following the same mistakes we made with the dot coms - trying to force new technology into traditional models.

And I definitely agree with your assessment of Hiller's model.

Posted by: Burningbird on 31 May 2002 at 02:04 AM

Razor sharp. Thanks, Jonathon, that about says it.

Posted by: Mike Golby on 31 May 2002 at 03:15 AM

I must say I enjoy cooking -- and eating. Well put.

Posted by: Allan Moult on 31 May 2002 at 09:13 AM

I haven't heard of any webloggers who want to be journalists. It seems to be the journalists who want to pidgeonhole webloggers as wannabe journalists because they can't digest the concept any other way.

Posted by: Paul Victor Novarese on 31 May 2002 at 12:55 PM

Couldn't disagree with you more, Paul. From where I sit, webloggers are falling over themselves to compete with mainstream media in "breaking stories."

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on 31 May 2002 at 04:40 PM

This is a very well voiced pov. I must say that I have no desire to be a journalist whatsoever. If anything, I might wind up as an op-ed somewhere, but for the most part, my desire in blogging is merely to communicate. Sometimes there is something really interesting to say. Sometimes there is merely daily drivel on which to report. Regardless, I NEVER want to be associated with journalism.

Posted by: Stu D. on 1 June 2002 at 12:20 AM

Remember that the webloggers who shout loudest about weblogging and journalism all have a vested interest in doing so. They're either software vendors for weblogging software and/or are on the lecture circuit about weblogs. Some of these people are even mostly out of work and depend on a weblogging buzz to make a living selling consulting, speaking time, or a book! Does this completely invalidate their ideas? No, not at all. But it certainly renders them suspect.

Posted by: Jason on 1 June 2002 at 05:59 AM

There's one definition of journalism I think applies to blogging. "the public press" -- merriam webster. Because that is what we have here. I agree with all you say (and holy crap it's well said), but I think there is a benefit to describing something in the context of the known. And, well, shit, since I'm the Clued Professor of Micro Journalism at our Blogaria campus, I'd better have something to say about the word. The micro part is what I like about it. We're not speaking to the masses or reporting events on the time or dime of advertisers, but we are reporting on some serious, real-life, real time shit, to other real people. We cop to bias; in fact we're proud to be biased. That's one thing that makes us a whole lot more interesting. And whatever you call it, it sure is a blast!

Off to grade papers now--Jonathon, another A+ for you, you brown nose!

Posted by: jeneane on 1 June 2002 at 01:00 PM

Blogging is not journalism. You'd have to be deluded to think it was.

Bloggers don't have to attempt to get both sides of a story, check any facts or spend hours learning the rules and regulations of precisely what they can say in any given situation. Nor do they have to kowtow to anyone's idea of what it is "commercial" to publish.

But it might form the raw material of journalism, on those occasions when bloggers have witnessed things with their own eyes or researched their subjects. What journalist would not want ready access to hundreds of thousands of articulate sources?

Really, blogging is more like writing a diary, and then instantly letting anyone in the world read it. And that's something new in the history of publishing. It's not journalism, but so what?

Posted by: John Morrish on 2 June 2002 at 04:39 AM

Amen. Who wants to be a journalist, anyway?

I've got some more pretentious thoughts on this subject at www.gadflybuzz.com if anybody cares to cruise by & take a look.

Posted by: the Gadfly on 3 June 2002 at 12:55 PM

John, I'm not saying blogging is journalism. I'm saying that weblogs can be so much more than mainstream journalism (which I regard as worn out and corrupt).

And although blogging may appear to resemble writing a diary and letting everyone in the world read it, that's a tenth-rate ambition compared to what blogging might actually become.

Posted by: Jonathon Delacour on 3 June 2002 at 12:55 PM

Jonathan, I wasn't accusing you of thinking blogging was journalism: there are plenty of people who do, but they're wrong.

We'll probably have to differ about whether journalism is worn out and corrupt. Plenty of journalists are, that's for sure, but I still think the basic idea -- finding something out, finding evidence to support your belief that it happened, publishing in a way that's lawyer-proof -- is worthwhile. When we have one of our perennial rail crashes, I don't expect to discover the cause in a blog.

But I do agree that blogging is potentially magical, original etc... It allows everyone to publish, rather than reserving freedom for the press to those who own one, as someone once said. But as you said, we've got to see what "blogging might actually become". A lot of people thought Usenet was going to change the world.

Posted by: John Morrish on 5 June 2002 at 05:31 AM

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2002-2003 Jonathon Delacour