Monday, June 09, 2008

O the horror of it all! It turns out anybody – anybody at all – can unearth a news story or express a political opinion. Without a license!

You can sense, just under the surface, a growing malaise among journalists who work in traditional media – print and broadcast.

Competition from the masses

The latest press concern? That anybody with a tape recorder, or a cell phone, or even with nothing but some intellectual curiosity, can dig up and break news these days – as long as they own a computer.

Gone are the days when somebody first had to take courses from the South Podunk State University School of Journalism and Mass Communications. Or even from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

Gone are the days when you had to intern – as I did – for some small town paper like The Troy (Ohio) Daily News and the now-defunct Paterson (New Jersey) Sunday Eagle before you could get launched as a cub reporter – also as I did – for The New York Post. 

At that point, you finally had a credential that enabled you to stand in the crowds during a presidential election rally phoning in “color.” Or, at 3 o'clock in the morning, you got to ring a doorbell and throw a pair of bleary-eyed parents into shock by saying, "Your son just got killed in a drunk driving automobile collision on Pitkin Avenue. What kind of a boy was he? How was he doing in school? Was he ever drunk before? Who were his friends? Did he have a driver's license. How was he doing in school? Why was he on Pitkin Avenue?"

Instead, whoever you are these days, if you see something you can say something – and potentially get worldwide exposure for it. You can even show the world a record of the event that  you shot with your cell phone.

Journalism major?
Big freaking deal.

The problem with college majors in journalism is that most of the courses are how-to lessons in journalism that you could pick up on the job.

Each hour spent in a journalism class is an hour that is not spent studying history, or government, or sociology, or science. So journalism students learn mostly technique, not perspective. You learn how to interview, how to construct a pyramid-structure story that enables editors to chop off your copy to fit from the bottom up. You learn (maybe) where and how to check public records. Okay, I’m for that part of it.

You also learn the “ethics” of making sure that if you quote one person, you also quote “the other side.” That’s called “balance.”

"What color is the sky?
Here with another point of view is..."

While the theory of “balance” is good, it doesn’t always serve the purpose for which it’s intended. If you quote some dude as saying “The sky is blue,” you then have to go out and find somebody willing to say, “No, the sky is brown with orange polka dots.”

In the name of “balance” the traditional press has given a podium to flacks, hacks and fools willing to say we’re actually “winning” the war in Iraq, or that Social Security is going down the tubes and can be saved only by “privatizing” it, or that God created dinosaurs the day before he created people, and then buried the dinosaur bones to test our faith.

All these claims are patently ridiculous, yet all get placed before news audiences as “reasonable” alternatives to what is obviously the truth.

“But we’ve always misreported
the news this way.”

People get accustomed to doing things the way they've always done them. So it’s not surprising that newspeople are so accustomed to having a lock on news that they get their bustles twisted out of shape by the “amateurs” who scoop them on every level – from national news to small town stuff (as you’ll see if you read on) involving a political candidate who failed to obtain a $100 license for a bed and breakfast.

No fair! A mere“amateur” discovers
Bill Clinton’s potty mouth.

The national story, in this case, involved Bill Clinton. Good ol' boy Bill launched a potty-mouthed denunciation of a journalist who made him look bad in Vanity Fair magazine. Reports the Los Angeles Times (with what one senses is a thinly-masked explosion of outrage):
The 61-year-old self-described "failed writer" and amateur Web journalist helped create two of the most unexpected moments in the 2008 election -- most recently on Monday, when she recorded former President Clinton's fiery denunciation ("slimy," "dishonest") of Vanity Fair writer Todd Purdum. The latest incident cemented Fowler's place as the unlikely face of the new-media revolution that is remaking presidential campaigns. Online videos can dominate the evening news. Or an unpublished novelist "with absolutely no journalism training" can alter the national debate.
Well, “alter the national debate” might be going a tetch far in this case, especially since that alteration is an unsupported claim in a newspaper of national standing.

Absolution for the 
Los Angeles Times

But let’s forgive the L.A. Times. The folks in the newsroom there must be suffering the hellish agonies of the scooped. Heck, it’s a good story, and they didn’t get it. Instead, someone “with absolutely no journalism training” got the story ahead of them.

Let us instead pick up the tale in the New York Times which horrifies us – O, what horrific horror! – with this nugget:
The woman, Mayhill Fowler, who calls herself a citizen journalist, wore no credential around her neck and did not identify herself, her intentions or her affiliation as an unpaid contributor to Off the Bus, a section of The Huffington Post.
While her digital audio recorder was visible in her left hand during that encounter last Monday, she says, she did not believe Mr. Clinton saw it. “I think we can safely say he thought I was a member of the audience,” she said in a telephone interview on Friday.
Newsweek writer twists
his own bustle, too

The same Times article has Jonathan Alter, who writes for Newsweek, huffing – accidental pun – “You identify yourself when you’re interviewing somebody. It’s just a form of cheating not to.”

Wait a second, Jonathan. Just wait a second! Who’s getting cheated here? Seems to me it certainly wasn’t the readers of the Huffington Post, who were given a vivid insight into the irascible personality of a man who might have been a highlyu influential “First Hubby.”

So why the outrage? The Times quotes Jane Hamsher of the blog Firedog Lake as saying, the purpose of identify-yourself-guidelines is “to “protect this clubby group of journalists and their high-ranking political subjects, and keep access to themselves.”

Let’s look at it another way.

"Excuse me, Mr. Hitler, are the

awful rumors about you true?"

Let’s say I’m a newspaper reporter in 1941, and in the name of “balance” I identify myself to Adolph Hitler, and ask, “Are the reports true, Mr. Hitler, that you are exterminating Jews in concentration camps?”

“Of course not!” barks Hitler, “This is just vicious anti-German propaganda, nothing more.”

On the other hand, suppose I sidled up to Hitler without identifying myself and asked, “Say mein fuhrer, how many more Jews do we have to exterminate before they’re all gone?” And suppose, his guard down, he replied, “Not long. We killed a million already and we’re gassing ten thousand a week right now.”

You’re telling me that if I broadcast that quote, and revealed he admitted the horror of what he was doing to the world before another five million innocent human beings died, I’d be unethically “cheating” – right Jonathan?

America’s first blogger
used a printing press

Remember that America’s first freedom of the press case – the colonial uproar that made the First Amendment so important to the authors of the constitution, involved not a “trained journalist” but a printer who was publishing his own opinions – the 18th Century equivalent of a blogger today.

His name was John Peter Zenger, and if you missed history class because you were too busy studying journalism, you can read more about his case here.

Of course, it isn’t always bagging big game that offends the “trained” press.

Shock that a blogger unearths
a small town "scandal

Consider exurban “Dan’s Papers,” a rich, fat weekly in New York’s most fashionable outlying vacation colony, “The Hamptons.”

Dan Rattiner, the founder, editor and former publisher is a talented writer, raconteur, and observer of the Hamptons scene. He built his journal from a simple broadsheet to a behemoth he recently sold for $19 million.

Dan was writing his paper in the style of a personal blog before the word blog was invented. I begrudge him neither his hard-earned bucks nor the bully pulpit he still retains on Dan’s Papers after the sale. But I do begrudge the tone of a recent “20-Something” column written by his son, David Lion Rattiner. Young David complains:
Thanks to "On The Beach Blog," a personal blog about Westhampton Beach, that town's Deputy Mayor, Jim Kametler, is finding himself in the middle of a scandal.

O, the scandal of it all!

Just so you are aware, in order to get a proper permit for the bed-and-breakfast, a $100 application fee is required each year, and Village Code approval must be obtained. You also need to register with the Suffolk County Treasurer's Office to get a certificate of registration. Not a whole lot of work, but needless to say, the Deputy Mayor didn't get that paperwork, and a man with a computer wasn't about to let him get away with it.
Got that little elbow in the ribs concerning “a man with a computer?”

Nevermind that Dan’s Papers, other local weeklies and the big daily Long Island Newsday missed the story until the “On The Beach Blog" uncovered it.

Axes, grinders and love

Young David’s piece goes on to imply that that the On The Beach blogger has some axes to grind with the mayor. So what? Since when is there a law that you have to really, really like and admire a guy to expose his illegal activities? And come to think of it, might Young David have an axe to grind with bloggers who scoop him?

Heck, it’s getting to the point where some kid who has a 30 column-inch sinecure because his father started a newspaper simply can’t tell where the next scoop by some untrained journalist is going to come from.

1 comment:

Dean Speir said...

In fairness to "young David Rattiner," I don't think he was attempting to discredit me so much as appear "fair and balanced."

- The On the Beach blogger