Thursday, August 31, 2006

Academic Freedom? Which One?

All right. I admit it.

David Horowitz isn’t the only one who hasn’t a clue about what “academic freedom” really means. A lot of faculty members don’t either.

John Friedl makes that clear in a piece that appears today at InsideHigherEd called “Stretching the Definition of Academic Freedom.” What makes his point particularly important to me (though I disagree with a part of it) is that he shows just how it is that Horowitz and his fellow travelers have been able to twist “academic freedom” into a tool for attacking American academia.

For their own purposes, many professors had already contorted the concept, stretching it into a protection of their individual autonomy in areas well beyond what “academic freedom” can legitimately cover.

According to Michale Berube:
THE PRINCIPLE OF ACADEMIC FREEDOM stipulates that “teachers are entitled to full freedom in research and in the publication of the results, subject to the adequate performance of their other academic duties”; it insists that professors should have intellectual autonomy from legislatures, trustees, alumni, parents, and ecclesiastical authorities with regard to their teaching and research.
The operant phrase is “freedom in research and in the publication of the results.” By this definition (and I agree with it completely), “academic freedom” is a particular and limited right with a particular and limited purpose.

It has nothing to do with the classroom. It concerns students not at all.

Friedl initially agrees:
One of the earliest definitions of academic freedom is found in the AAUP’s 1915 Declaration of Principles on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure. The discussion is framed in terms of the freedom of the individual faculty member to pursue his or her research and teaching interests without interference from “outsiders,” whether they be members of the institution’s governing body or the public at large.
He goes on to explain that “academic freedom” has never been defined in law, though, in the 1950s, Supreme Court Justice:
Felix Frankfurter defined the four elements of academic freedom as: “the freedom of an institution to decide who may attend, who may teach, what may be taught and how it shall be taught.” Note that this definition places the bundle of rights that make up academic freedom in the institution, not the individual faculty member.
This “academic freedom” is substantially different from the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) one, for it places the right as institutional, not personal—and it may be part of the problem. Though the phrase is the same, this is something substantially different from traditional “academic freedom.” It is not simply an expansion, but a movement away from the older definition.

Siezing on the idea that “academic freedom” is somehow institutional and not individual, the Horowitzians have decided that “academic freedom” is something that can be legislated, something that can be forced on institutions that, in their view, are recalcitrant. When they conflate this sort of “academic freedom” with “freedom of speech” (which they do constantly), they are able to claim that, by forcing universities to “open up” to all viewpoints, they are protecting “academic freedom.”

Of course, their definition of “academic freedom” fits neither with Frankfurter or the AAUP. They expand it in a different direction, making it a protection (primarily) for students—something not contained in either of the earlier definitions.

Professors have expanded the rights of “academic freedom” in another direction, further confusing the issue. As Friedl writes:
The real difficulty is that on many campuses throughout the country, the expanding concept of academic freedom has created an expectation of total individual autonomy. Our concept of faculty status seems to have evolved from one of employee to that of an independent contractor offering private tutorials to the institution’s students using the institution’s resources, but unfettered by many of the institution’s policies.
That’s not “academic freedom” either, not by either of the older definitions.

Friedl, without really explaining why, accepts Frankfurter’s definition, claiming that “academic freedom” is a right of the university and not of the professor. Perhaps, but that’s a different freedom than what has traditionally been seen as “academic freedom,” which is that quite specific protection of research and publication. So, even while attempting to clarify the debate, he muddies it, too.

In our debates on “academic freedom,” we have different people talking about different things for completely different purposes. Many of us who teach in American universities would prefer that we return to the AAUP definition. Others see “academic freedom” as personal autonomy within the institution. Following Frankfurter, some people see it as an institutional right. Finally, Horowitz has moved it into the realm of student rights.

Is it any wonder that our debates on “academic freedom” are increasingly frustrated—and, as a result, have become an avenue for the promotion of other agendas? Horowitz, for example, doesn’t really care about “academic freedom” (after all, he has made up his own definition, one that suits his political ends). He wants to wrest control of the universities from what he sees as a leftist elite.

By redefining “academic freedom” to suit their own needs, many professors have made this easier for Horowitz, obscuring the original intent of “academic freedom.” Frankfurter further confused things, by using the term for something else completely, applying it to institutional autonomy.

Though they will have to stop using it to justify expanded autonomy, it’s in the best interest of university professors to return to the old definition, to speak of “academic freedom” only in terms of research and publication. By using the phrase for other things, they have opened it up for misuse—and the unscrupulous are now taking advantage of that.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Cheney: "I Am a Crock"

Yesterday, in a comment on a post of another parody poem in a post of it on The Daily Kos, I was asked if I could do one on Dick Cheney.  I did, and presented it as a comment.

This morning, I reworked it a bit, and offer it as a bit of breakfast amusement (for more, go here to see the Carnival of the Liberals Parody Poetry edition):

I Am a Crock

(With Apologies to) Paul Simon

For Trashablanca

A winter's day

In a deep and dark Fed bunker;

I am alone,

Gazing through my spyhole at the nukes way down below

On my fresh and deadly warheads set to go.

`Cause I'm a crock,

Taking what I can.

I've built walls,

A fortress deep and mighty,

That none may penetrate.

I have no need of friendship; my friendship causes pain.

I'll shoot them for it's loving I disdain.

`Cause I'm a crock,

Taking what I can.

Don't talk to doves,

Well I've heard their words before;

They're sleeping in my memory.

I won't disturb the slumber of feelings that have died.

But I never cared; I never would have cried.

`Causet I'm a crock,

Taking what I can.

I have my crooks

And my shotguns to protect me;

I am shielded in my armor,

Hiding in my room, safe within my womb.

I touch no one and no one touches me.

`Cause I'm a crock,

Taking what I can.

And a crock feels no pain;

And only others die.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

George Bush Is "No Man"

Parody poetry has been a bit of a hobby of mine ever since I saw The Brand X Anthology of Poetry, Burnt Norton Edition, edited by William Zaranka (Cambridge, MA: Apple-Wood Books, 1981) more than twenty years ago.

George Bush and his cronies being such perfect targets, I have been doing more and more of it--and recently hosted here a Carnival of the Liberals edition on parody poetry (three Kossacks are included).

What follows is Bush as Wallace Stevens' "The Snow Man":

The No Man

(with apologies to) Wallace Stevens

One must have no mind or center

To regard the cost and the harm

Of the Iraq war over our needs;

And have been cold a long time

To behold the deficit shagged with graft,

The suffering rough in the distant New Orleans

Or health-care failures; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few Dems,

Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place

For the decider, who postures, sure doesn't know,

And, nothing himself, demands

Nothing be good here and makes nothing of what is.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Jay Rosen and

Say what you will about Jay Rosen, he remains one of the only people (outside of the citizen’s journalism movement) doing more than complain about the state of journalism in the United States. For decades, now, he has been trying to move the journalism profession in new, potentially fruitful directions. In the 1990s, he was involved (as an outsider) with Knight Ridder’s attempts to develop a new model for community/journalism interactions sometimes called “civic journalism” or “public journalism.” This was an attempt to bridge the growing gap between the public and those bringing it the news—and even the gap between the business side of the paper and the editorial.

Fellow journalism professor Philip Meyer describes the reactions to this attempt to create a movement in his book The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age (Columbia, MO: The University of Missouri Press, 2004), stating that it was:
denounced by critics as a ploy by publishers to make more money. (One unintended effect of the historic separation of news and business sides has been to give some news people the odd notion that making money is bad.) The concept was introduced into newspaper companies from the top down. In a business so conservative that anything that seems new can set off alarm bells, top-down innovation can create a problem. Nevertheless, it was really a good idea.[…] Civic journalism was a way to use a newspaper’s influence to build a stronger polity, and it benefited both the community and the paper. (72)

Meyer is right: it was a good idea—and it still is.

Thanks to the Internet, however, we live in a different media age from that of a decade ago, and Rosen has had to move on from “public journalism” to a new model that includes both the present impact of the web and its possibilities.

Ironically, the alarm bells today, in response to his “,” seem to be coming from citizens and not from journalists—but for at least one parallel reason. Many, including me, worry that Rosen is again trying to work from the top down rather than from the bottom up—which is what those of us involved in “citizen’s journalism” aspire to. However, as in the case of similar criticism of “public journalism,” this doesn’t mean that the concept itself does not contain positive possibilities—simply that, from our point of view, it could easily fall into the category of “same old, same old” (ultimately enforcing the divide between journalist and citizen rather than bridging it) instead of moving journalism into a new and more productive direction.

To be fair, and as Rosen himself constantly points out, has yet to assume its final structure. It’s a work in progress, and Rosen (I assume) is putting the concept forward now so that he can gather reactions and fine-tune it in light of them.

One of Rosen’s more interesting comments concerning is that he feels it could be “journalism without the media.” What he means by that, I suspect, is that the focus would be on the product and not on the means of transmittal that has become so much the center of the journalistic world. He also stresses that his editors could “hire anyone they want,” regardless of professional credentials.

He also stresses (as I have done, though from a different perspective, here and here) that “professional,” in journalism, need not mean more than that the person is paid. Rosen claims that there can be no board certification for journalism due to First Amendment concerns (I’m not so sure about that), but he makes it clear that he is not interested solely in people who:
have jumped through this or that imaginary hoop, or those who have "Northwestern U. approved me" stamped on their foreheads. The most important qualification for a New Assignment editor or reporter will be the ability to work in the open style.

That’s an important distinction.

Rosen also makes clear that he is not trying to move in on either professional journalism or citizen’s journalism. He writes:
My suggestion is that we need all three types:
• Citizen journalism, roll your own, no pros.
• Hybrid forms like NewAssignment.Net, which seek advantages in a mixed model. (Actual mix to be determined by what works in practice.)
• And professional operations, in which citizens can talk back and interact but the pros run the show.

One of my worries about was that it was an attempt to enfold citizen’s journalism within professional journalism—something I would vigorously oppose. I am still concerned that this could be the end result of the success of the model—were citizen journalists to embrace it and, for whatever reasons, abandon their independent projects. I’m also unsure whether or not a middle route is needed—though I do recognize that a way for professionals and amateurs to work successfully together could benefit both.

My major concern about is that I don’t see incorporation of protection of the amateur. From experience running a volunteer organization, I know that it is easy for the paid staff to take over, “running” the volunteers instead of letting the volunteers provide the energy behind the projects. Perhaps, were Rosen to include amateurs even on the money side of, there could be a bit more protection. Or he could design a Board of Directors composed in equal parts amateurs and professionals, a Board with direct concern for the hiring of the professional editors and reporters who would be working with the volunteers. A third possibility would be insistence that no professional be involved on a full-time, permanent basis—that this be a secondary job for them. That way, the professionals would be much less likely to dominate.

Whatever Rosen does, we citizen journalists will be watching with interest. As always, we will be ready with our criticism—but we will also be appreciative of his efforts on behalf of a field that we, too, are attempting to change (though from a different direction). Rosen, like us, is trying to do more than simply wring his hands at the horrible state for affairs in journalism today. And that is worthy of our praise.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Journalism: Why Force the Amateur and the Professional Together?

Before I get into this too deeply, I had better make two points: First, I have a great deal of respect for Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism professor who, for twenty years, has been behind some of the best and most innovative attempts to reform the professional and commercial news media. Rosen was a key thinker in the “public journalism” movement of the 1990s, one of the only bright spots of a dismal decade for journalism. Second, I am an active member of ePluribus Media (ePM), a “citizen journalist” group that attempts to bypass the professional and commercial news media completely—though only in our own particular projects (we have no interest in the destruction of the professional and commercial news media).

It is my participation in ePM that led me to this essay. Another ePM “citizen journalist,” who uses the name “wanderindiana,” posted a diary entitled “ Top-down ‘Citizen Journalism’" that brought me once again to consideration of the problem of the professional versus the amateur in terms of journalism.

In his post, “wanderindiana” is responding to Rosen’s newest project, something called “” Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine describes what Rosen envisions:
The public will come to with story ideas and will collaborate on honing them there. Once assigned by NewAssignment’s editors, the public will contribute both money and reporting to the work that reporters are paid to do. The process is open and the public will have a strong voice and role in the journalism NewAssignment does. Editors will supervise the assignments and the reporting and will edit the stories, assuring that NewAssignment produces quality journalism and also that it is not overtaken by a pressure groups.

Rosen, on his blog PressThink, further describes the project:
The site uses open source methods to develop good assignments and help bring them to completion; it employs professional journalists to carry the project home and set high standards so the work holds up.[…]

[T]he site gives out real assignments— paid gigs with a chance to practice the craft of reporting at a high level. Because they’re getting paid, the journalists who contract with New Assignment have the time—and obligation—to do things well. That means working with the smart mobs [Howard Rheingold’s term for an aware and wired populace working in concern] who gave rise to the assignment and handed it over to an editor and correspondent with the story part-of-the-way there.

Rosen calls this “networked journalism,” a phrase concocted by Jarvis for describing amateurs and professionals cooperating in the news-media field, particularly by taking advantage of new technologies.

Unfortunately, as “wanderindiana” writes, Rosen’s is:
a top-down model, and that is why it is doomed to no more than limited success.[…]

With, all I see here is the gatekeepers looking for a way to hold the power. Why would true "citizen journalists" give up the power to publish on their own in a free and open medium to be subjects to the self-appointed Overlords of the New Media?

What we have here, as that warden said about Cool Hand Luke, is a failure to communicate. For all his brilliance, Rosen has not recognized that the key feature of the rise of “citizen journalism” is a rejection of the importance of the participation of professionals in a “citizen journalist’s” project. Until he thoroughly explores just why this happens, Rosen will continue to make assumptions about “citizen journalists” that are not warranted. Assumptions that, as “wanderindiana” points out, make it highly unlikely that his project will be a success of the type he imagines.

The assumption behind Rosen’s project is that, while “citizen journalists” do have something to offer, the professionals have skills and a professional ethic that add competency to any individual assignment and that will make sure the result adheres to high ethical standards.

While I applaud the desire to find a way to get the professionals and the amateurs working together, each taking advantage of what the other offers, Rosen’s assumption (again) is not warranted.

(For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to bypass the question of “professionalism” in the news media—whether or not there really are professional standards, including ethical standards, that govern the field. An assumption that there are, or even that the “standards” are a myth, makes no difference to the point I am trying to make here.)

One of the fears of news media professionals is that amateurs on the Internet will eventually push them away, reducing the accuracy and objectivity of the new news media, making journalism nothing more than mob response to events. They are defensive of their skills and importance and are proud of their journalism heritage, and they worry that the best of the profession will suffer for the sins of the worst.

“Citizen journalists,” on the other hand, see the professionals as lacking in the passion necessary for real and effective delving into the specific issues the “citizen journalists” address. They point to “drive-by journalism,” where the professionals pass quickly through a story, never really getting to the heart of the matter.

Rosen hopes to bring these two attitudes together, utilizing the strengths of each, creating a new journalism paradigm that contains the best of both worlds.

Thing is, Rosen’s model calls for the professionals (both reporters and editors) to take over each assignment at some point in the process. This, to “citizen journalists,” is completely unacceptable.

Even when they recognize the value of the professional journalist (and only a fool would deny it), the “citizen journalist” sees no need to cede control of any assignment. The professional can work with the amateur, certainly, but not as the boss—at least, not in the ”citizen journalist’s” eye. There is no reason for the professional to take over. As ePM shows with each new story on its Journal site, amateurs can fact-check with the best, can edit superbly, and can hold each other to high ethical standards. Yes, professionals have more extensive resources and, sometimes, backgrounds allowing them to bring to the table things the amateur can match only rarely—but they are neither necessary guides nor needed fronts.

In addition, in the mind of the “citizen journalist,” there are problems inherent in the fact of being a professional in journalism. One’s goals are different from those of an amateur—career considerations are going to trump the needs of the story from time to time. They have to: the professional, after all, makes his or her living through the work and has to keep that in mind.

Also, many of us involved in “citizen journalism” have dabbled in professional journalism, leaving for a variety of reasons (and not simply because we could not “make it” in the field). As a group, we have all the skills needed for the type of projects we initiate.

We “citizen journalists” work together based on what each of us can offer a particular project. We don’t “pull rank”—in ePM, no one has ever said they should be listened to by virtue of some past professional experience in the field. Some of us find we are better writers than we are researchers. Others just love fact-checking and do it splendidly. And some actually prefer to edit the work of others. There is no hierarchy, though; we work back and forth as equals.

What Rosen is asking us to do is to give up our egalitarianism because he believes the professionals can do a better job.

Is it any wonder that there are those amongst us, “wanderindiana” included, who look askance at Rosen’s project?

There is a place for the professional journalist, even in the expanding media universe of the twenty-first century. Spot news reporting, for example, takes confidence and a set of skills that only training and experience can build. But there is no reason to impose the professionals on what “citizen journalists” are already learning to do for themselves—and for each other.

I hope Rosen, will listen to “wanderindiana,” to me, and to the other “citizen journalists,” and will begin to understand that it’s not a melding of the professional and the amateur that’s needed. As I said, there’s room in this new media universe for both.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

CoTL: Parody Edition

Carnival of the Liberals #19: The Parody Poetry Edition

Believe it or not, parody takes work! As a result, we got fewer entries for this edition, but the quality is high. For that reason, I'm not going to break the winners down by place, but merely describe them and link to them.

Not surprisingly, Jolted Joe Lieberman was the subject of number of our entries and winners. One is a sad ballad by Madeline Begun Kane. Her "The Ballad of Joementum Joe Lieberman" should be sung to the tune of "Danny Boy."

Then there is "DINO Joe" from Ed Drone, who makes me want to wax nostalgic about Hank Williams. The first one, not his son or grandson.

We certainly couldn't resist Limerick Savant's "Political Kiss of Death," another "stab" at poor old Joe. Joementum: the gift that keeps on giving.

Speaking of dinosaurs... that other one, the Hummer, also tipped the scales sufficiently. The Ridger is with us again, presenting "The Fab Fourwheels Medley Celebrating The New Hummer Campaign." There's more than a little bit of "Yellow Submarine" (as you might guess from the title) going on here.

Speaking of the Fab Four, Kiwi Fruit offers "The Continuing Story of Hunkerdown Dick"--followed by "Sympathy for the Dick."

From the vice to the... er, head of vice: Greensmile offers "A Skeleton in Bush's Closet Speaks," with apologies to Robert Frost.

Only one for W. wouldn't be enough. Reyonthehill saves us from that sad fate with "Bush, he rode; Bush, he fell." With pictures!

Speaking of pictures, taking on a movie instead of a poem or song, thedoodabides puts "Dubithy" over the rainbow in "The Wizard of Oil."

Unwilling to provide just one, cskendrick provides what really is parody central with links to a strong line of original parody poetry.

Watch here and at Carnival of the Liberals for rules of the next edition, which will be hosted by The Greenbelt on August 30, 2006.

I will leave you with my latest parody, one that was inspired by a Daily Kos conversation on the day I posted the call for entries:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blogofascist
(With Apologies to) Wallace Stevens

Among twenty leftist websites,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blogofascist.

I was of three minds,
Like a diary
In which there are three blogofascists.

The blogofascist whirled in the autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a blogofascist
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The blogofascist writing
Or just after.

Idiocy filled the long window
With barbaric gas.
The shadow of the blogofascist
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of the right,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the blogofascist
Walks away with the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the blogofascist is involved
In what I know.

When the blogofascist dropped out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of blogofascists
Typing in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

Joe rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For blogofascists.

The river is moving.
The blogofascists must be writing.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blogofascists sat
In the catbird seat.

(Dedicated to the dKos diarist Meteor Blades)

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Something Is Happening (And They Don't Know What It Is)

It’s nice that the commercial and professional news media are now honoring us bloggers as (collectively) a powerful new player on the political landscape. Though they also like to disparage us (“rabid lambs” from David Brooks is my favorite), they really are paying attention to us—and we should be flattered.

Thing is, it’s a bit unwarranted and most assuredly over-blown. We aren’t nearly the power they think we are.

Their misperception is quite understandable. They have been living in an artificial media world constructed and limited by commercial and professional considerations—and they have mistaken this world for the “real” world. It’s a world where the majority of the population is expected to be reactive (almost passive), reacting solely to what is offered to them by the small number of people actively involved in politics and the news media. Popular opinion is formed by this small group of players—it does not arise from the general population.

Unable to get their minds around the possibility that people might be able to think for themselves, yet faced with this new phenomenon of the blogs, they have had to find some other way of explaining what is happening.

Their choice has been to admit us into their august society—even though we are somewhat smelly and don’t know how to dress—for then they can make sense of us. They have come to believe that we are, like them, manipulators of the public. That idea they can handle. That we are the public speaking for itself is a concept beyond their comprehension, for it does not fit into their model world.

The reasons their fake little world has come into being are complex. Part of his has to do with the removal of the news media from the realm of public discourse. Once upon a time, the local newspaper editor would hang out at the local tavern or inn, soaking in the arguments—and participating. The news media were a real part of the debate. But the news media left the localities, moving more and more to centralized (and corporatized) locations. And they took the debate with them, when they left (or so they thought). In DC and New York, they continued to talk and discuss, but now only with each other. Eventually, they forgot completely that the debates were also going on “back home.” When that debate suddenly intrudes on them, as it has through the blogs, they have to find some way to explain it away. In this case, the easiest way is to imagine that the bloggers are just new kids on their block. Integrating it, maybe, but not providing a real two-way connection back to the old neighborhood.

Another part of the construction of the fictional world was the growth of professionalism in the news media. Once, the local printer produced a paper as a sideline—and discussion in it was often just an extension from that found in the local coffeehouse. Now, one has to have a journalism-school education in order to participate… to allow just anyone in would be an abrogation of “responsibility” (say what?) to the public. The bloggers are proving that it doesn’t take special training to be an astute observer in the political realm. Not wanting to face that, the news media are giving the bloggers an honorary degree, thereby setting us apart from the general populace.

A third part (and one that most in the news media try to avoid recognizing) is the commercial drive of their media vehicles. There’s no public-spirited largess in the presentations through the news media to the public. It’s all done for profit. The ones who “make it” in the news media are not the most competent, but the ones who can bring in the biggest audiences. The people in the news media, though they know this, want to pretend that they are something more than that—at the same time believing that no one has any other motivation. Bloggers, to them, are just trying to cash in through a new media channel.

The news media don’t understand that we are something different altogether, that we don’t want to join their world, that we don’t care about their awards and recognition, and that we really aren’t in it for the money. They don’t understand that we, as part of the general populace, reflect that population. We aren’t trying to change it—we are it.

Until they get that through their heads, they will never be able to understand what is happening in the media world of today. They remind me of Mr. Jones in Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man”:
You've been with the professors
And they've all liked your looks;
With great lawyers you have
Discussed lepers and crooks.
You've been through all of
F. Scott Fitzgerald's books:
You're very well read
It's well known.

But something is happening here
And you don't know what it is,
Do you, Mister Jones?
Because they don’t know what is happening, they imagine it is something else, something they could understand. When it comes down to it, though, they don’t know what it is.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Announcing the Parody Poetry Fest!

Call for Submissions

On August 16, 2006, One Flew East will host the Carnival of the Liberals edition (#19), “Parody Poetry.”

The only prize is a link to the parody on your blog or diary, but please join in and submit a parody via this link or email

The parodies can be of poetry or song—and can be of any length or style. What is desired doesn’t even have to be parody of a particular song or poem. One of my own poems, for example, that is not strictly parody is a formulation of the words of Scott McClellan at a press conference. People have done the same with the words of Donald Rumsfeld—and I’m waiting for someone to do something similar with the words of George Bush. In other words, the guidelines are loose. The main thing is to make people smile while making a political point in poetic (or song) form.

The deadline for submissions is 8 PM Monday (EST), August 14.

Oh… and don’t forget to visit next Wednesday to read the results.

Friday, August 04, 2006

The Amateur and the Professional

Some people in the commercial news media are beginning to understand something of what the blogs offer journalism—though they still manage to keep themselves at arms length from the blogs. Writing in The New Yorker of August 8, 2006, Nicholas Lemann (in a piece called “Amateur Hour”), while a little snide in his attitudes towards bloggers and their promoters (and a little overly protective of the commercial and professional news media), does seem to see (at long last) that something important is going on.

Most interesting to me is that Lemann, following Mark Knights’ Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture, believes that the raucous nature of the blogs today is a self-limiting phenomenon—much as it was in Stuart England or (as I point out in The Rise of the Blogosphere) in Jeffersonian America:
Each side in […] the media front in a merciless political struggle […] soon began accusing the other of trafficking in lies, distortions, conspiracy theories, and special pleading, and presenting itself as the avatar of the public interest, civil discourse, and epistemologically derived truth. Knights sees this genteeler style of expression as just another political tactic, but it nonetheless drove print publication toward a more reasoned, less inflamed rhetorical stance […]

I would agree with Knights that it was a tactical change, just as it was, later, in America. But, while it drove the opposing tactics underground, it did not destroy it—nor was the change a necessary (“self-limiting”) result of the nature of the earlier, more vituperative, tactics. What happened was that the rhetoric of personal attack and loud voices simply moved away from the printed page. As I’m no expert in 17th (and early 18th) Century England, I can’t say why it happened there. In the United States, the rambunctious press was squeezed out by commercial needs: the new desire was to reach the maximum number of eyes possible (hence, not to offend anyone—at least, not too often). Lemann writes:
Internet journalism will surely repeat the cycle, and will begin to differentiate itself tonally, by trying to sound responsible and trustworthy in the hope of building a larger, possibly paying audience.

Here, Lemann and I would disagree. I believe that the sphere of public discourse needs to encompass both tactics if it is to remain viable—and that one of the reasons contemporary Americans are so alienated from the news media is that it has blocked out one important type of discourse. To really provide an inviting arena for discourse, room for all types needs to be available.

Another problem I have with Lemann’s arguments is that he (like many, both bloggers and journalists) continues the idea that there is an either/or dichotomy between the commercial news media and the blogs:
The most fervent believers in the transforming potential of Internet journalism are operating not only on faith in its achievements, even if they lie mainly in the future, but on a certainty that the old media, in selecting what to publish and broadcast, make horrible and, even worse, ignobly motivated mistakes. They are politically biased, or they are ignoring or suppressing important stories, or they are out of touch with ordinary people’s concerns, or they are merely passive transmitters of official utterances. The more that traditional journalism appears to be an old-fashioned captive press, the more providential the Internet looks.

Thing is, bloggers (as far as I can tell) don’t want journalists to stop doing what they are doing, or to go away—they want them to do more—or they will start doing it themselves, adding to what the journalists are doing. What most bloggers want is an expansion in what the news media does and contains—to a size that, ideally, can include even the amateurs. They don’t want to push the commercial, professional journalists away—they simply want the professionals to recognize the importance of the amateurs.

Lemann asks:
Is the Internet a mere safety valve, a salon des refuses, or does it actually produce original information beyond the realm of opinion and comment?

Personally, I think it’s a little early to be asking that—just as it’s a bit disparaging of “opinion and comment” (are not they, sometimes, “original information”?). After all, Alexander Hamilton had been screaming away in the press for more than a decade before he settled down to The Federalist Papers (though not even that stopped his screeches elsewhere). And the political blogs have been around just half that time.

Of course, though, The Federalist Papers were nothing more than “opinion and comment.”

Another blindness of Lemann’s is that he cannot see the power of multitude, leading to a certain condescension (at another point, writing as an insider, he indicates that amateurs are “welcome”—a patronizing attitude, at best). He writes:
Eyewitness accounts and information-sharing during sudden disasters are welcome, even if they don’t provide a complete report of what is going on in a particular situation. And that is what citizen journalism is supposed to do: keep up with public affairs, especially locally, year in and year out, even when there’s no disaster. Citizen journalists bear a heavy theoretical load. They ought to be fanning out like a great army, covering not just what professional journalists cover, as well or better, but also much that they ignore.

Like any amateur, a citizen journalist dips in and out—and no one will be able to give an entire picture. However, taken as an aggregate, they can (though it is nice to have professionals also doing that—the two can complement each other). Also, there is no “ought” in amateur activities. One has to accept the nature of volunteerism, that people will do what they want—and to trust to the virtue of size. Among a mass of people will be ones wanting to complete just about every task. Yes, as Lemann points out:
The best original Internet journalism happens more often by accident, when smart and curious people with access to means of communication are at the scene of a sudden disaster. Any time that big news happens unexpectedly, or in remote and dangerous places, there is more raw information available right away on the Internet than through established news organizations.

But that’s the point of having citizen journalists around, with that virtue of size. As millions upon millions of people with cell-phone cameras and Internet access can be available to give instant accountings of almost any event, it only remains for the professional journalist to sort through all of this, using professional skills and knowledge, to separate the wheat from the chaff. As I said, there is room for professional and amateur to work together in this new media world.

At one point in his essay, Lemann puts down citizen journalism in a way that only professional journalists will care about:
the content of most citizen journalism will be familiar to anybody who has ever read a church or community newsletter—it’s heartwarming and it probably adds to the store of good things in the world, but it does not mount the collective challenge to power which the traditional media are supposedly too timid to take up.

So? There’s room for all of that. But “most” is not “all”—just look at sites like those of the citizen journalist group ePluribus Media for an example of a site where citizen journalists are expressly trying to go where the commercial news media do not. It’s a big Internet world and much is happening in it—a great deal below Lemann’s (or anyone’s) radar.

Of course, reporting, only one aspect of journalism, will always remain a professional activity, for it goes beyond what a citizen journalist can do. Lemann defines it as:
the tradition by which a member of a distinct occupational category gets to cross the usual bounds of geography and class, to go where important things are happening, to ask powerful people blunt and impertinent questions, and to report back, reliably and in plain language, to a general audience

And that job will always remain important. As I have said, it complements citizen journalism, each making the other stronger. Thing is, even reporting doesn’t have to be the exclusive provenance of the professional. Lemann, however, believes that, even on the Internet, real reporting will be continue as the job of the professional only:
A few places, like the site on Yahoo! operated by Kevin Sites, consistently offer good journalism that has a distinctly Internet, rather than repurposed, feeling. To keep pushing in that direction, though, requires that we hold up original reporting as a virtue and use the Internet to find new ways of presenting fresh material—which, inescapably, will wind up being produced by people who do that full time, not “citizens” with day jobs.

I disagree. There will be professional journalists working primarily online (there already are), but I think that the army of citizen journalists, each providing just a little bit, will always provide something to journalism which the professional cannot—and has not.

I just wish that the professional journalists would recognize this as helping them, not competing with them.