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Involved and not; reporting's many faces

<![CDATA[Dave Winer wrote today of “professional journalists”: We’re fools if we believe they can be trusted to watch over themselves. We have the empirical evidence that proves otherwise. Net-net: the professional journalist is totally part of the story he or she is writing. That they believe otherwise is the major bug in their process. The […]

<![CDATA[Dave Winer wrote today of “professional journalists”:

We’re fools if we believe they can be trusted to watch over themselves. We have the empirical evidence that proves otherwise.

Net-net: the professional journalist is totally part of the story he or she is writing. That they believe otherwise is the major bug in their process.

The problem with Dave’s argument is that it assumes reporters are always involved. In fact, sometimes reporters simply aren’t involved and are just reporting events. That’s why there are reporters and columnists, beat writers and feature writers. The former are generally uninvolved, in the sense that reporters and beat writers are supposed to report events dispassionately and often do. The latter, columnists and feature writers, are definitely involved. Eventually, if you earn it, you get to have an opinion in a column or to write a feature that takes a position, even if it is just a narrative position on the events covered.
Those distinctions are important to understanding the many afflictions of a professionalized journalism, because many journalists attempt to be columnists when they are reporting and vice versa (Robert Novack’s alleged “reporting” about Valerie Plame’s professional activities is actually a form of politicking, for example). People’s ambitions carry them beyond the parameters of their current job, turning reporters into commentators and commentators, who are ostensibly supposed to be objective (and can be, though I find humorists who are willing to skewer everyone are the most objective-seeming of all), become “players” in their own right rather than the informed observers they are purported to be.
Anyone who thought reporters were pure as the driven snow is a fool, because there is nothing superhuman about them and the record stretches back far before Dan Rather and Bob Novack came along. Reporters are human, which involves some corruption of heart and mind as well as moments of true courage, honesty and charity. I don’t know why everyone is surprised by the news that reporters often take sides; it’s a natural function of spending time with people you are reporting on. It’s also hypocritical to argue reporters are corrupt if they don’t take your side, whether they explicitly acknowledge their position or not. I’ll take a reporter who knows their limits any day over an ideal. And there are times when it is best to leave the reporter’s opinion aside, as they should, as well. Stories that achieve this usually read as though the writer had no idea what was going on and asked the questions necessary to find out.
Then, there were the New Journalism writers, like Tom Wolfe and gonzo’s Hunter S. Thompson. I personally go for Thompson’s style over anything Wolfe wrote after 1970. Wolfe’s narratives are mannered while Thompson—at his best—is simply ripping up the scenery and recounting how people reacted. Thompson at his worst is a kind of caricature of dissent in the face of power. Doc Searls talks about this in response to Dave’s posting:

This was also a bug long before blogs came along and began fixing it with a vengeance. The first fixit effort I can remember arrived in what Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and others called The New Journalism. Hunter S. Thompson took this to a personal extreme he called Gonzo Journalism, without which we never would have had Gonzo Marketing, among other things.

A newspaper of nothing but gonzo reporting would be hard to read, though you’d probably find a voice or two you couldn’t do without. Why would it be that hard to read? Because there are a lot of bad writers who practice gonzo to cover their weaknesses, while some people’s view of the world and the way they enter it is addictive for its humor, honesty and cutting insight.
The fix-it project of the 1960s wasn’t a replacement or an upgrade, it was additive, providing another form for delivering information. It broadened the palette, though at the time it felt like the palette had been replaced. The point of innovation in media is to expand, not simply to displace, the voices that existed before (politics is what replaces voices).
I’m feeling more Buddhist all the time about this whole journalism v. blogging debate. The middle way in the metalogue that is emerging—the miraculous opening up of “the media” that’s going on—is plenty wide for all sorts of writing, the objective, the disclosed and the personal. There’s not one bug in journalism, there are many, almost as many or more than the number of journalists. There are also many bugs in the blogging process, especially since it is easy to claim that one is fully disclosed when bloggers seldom spend time examining their views for the influence of their own interests.
Bloggers simply haven’t had enough time to fuck up as royally as those who have been granted First Amendment protection for a couple centuries. Give them some time, though, and we’ll all see they’re human, if Matt Drudge’s many misleading and misinformed “scoops” aren’t proof enough for you. Fortunately, when everyone owns a press the empirical evidence that bloggers are humans prone to making egregious mistakes will pile up a lot faster than in the tightly controlled world of corporate media.
We—the people who read and listen or spend part of our time doing that before shooting our own mouths off—need to be skeptical of everything, especially one another. The articles of faith, even our faith in the voices of our friends, need to be examined constantly. Replacing Dan Rather with 100 bloggers’ reports about the world is just as flawed as trusting Dan Rather all the time; in fact, it’s probably more dangerous to our perception of the truth.]]>

2 replies on “Involved and not; reporting's many faces”

The Demise of Hunter S. Thompson – tody he joins the timeless ranks – no more marginalization – no more aging poet – no more inept rambling of unformed madness – his suicide was no cowardly act – but a calculated decision to stop the erosion of age and the future decay of this legacy – time is a master and needs to be dealt with – his place as iconic madman will now transcends the pains of withered old man – perhaps there is more to the story than meets the eye – the withered old body giving way to a slow decay and his glimpse into the void carried by a silver bullet seemed a valid exit strategy in the classic style of Steadman pen and ink-

Hunter S. Thompson wisely choose not to celebrate another day in American hipocracy by departing from us on the twentieth of February, two thousand and five. I wanted to say thank you to the good Doc for providing endless laughs and irresistable inspirations of the American norm. I shall drink Whiskey tonight. Long live Gonzo and the man with which inspired a generation of tainted offspring.