A Brief History of Truth in Journalism — Beginning Exactly 100 Years Ago

Truth and how it might best be achieved is very much at issue in American journalism today.

This is a debate with an important history. Our journalists first had to learn that it was important to stick to the facts. A story that appeared in the Chicago Daily Journal exactly one hundred years ago today played a role in spreading that understanding. Then American journalists had to figure out that everything officials say does not qualify as a fact. The New York Times ran a story fifty years ago today that was among those that made that clear. Now, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, more and more journalists and journalism critics are starting to realize that just sticking to the facts is not always sufficient for getting at the truth.

Being truthful might not seem a particularly controversial goal for a journalist, but there were other goals that sometimes outweighed it a hundred years ago – making fun of the gullibility of others, for example.

It is hard to think of anyone who unleashed as many journalistic hoaxes as a young reporter for the Chicago Daily Journal named Ben Hecht. Hecht would go on to a distinguished career as a playwright, screenwriter and novelist, as well as a journalist, but one of the stories he duped the Journal into printing certainly qualifies as among his more creative efforts: it announced that there had been an earthquake in Chicago – photographic evidence for which consisted of a trench Hecht and his photographer had dug in Lincoln Park, along with a shot of Hecht’s landlady surrounded by some broken dishes.

A fellow at a desk next to Hecht’s wrote one of the stories that may have done the most to convince American journalism that truthfulness counts. It is an interview – published in the Chicago Daily Journal on July 7, 1914 – with Helen Morton, heiress to the Morton Salt fortune. She had been hidden-away by her family after eloping. In order the get the interview the reporter was said to have floated down a river and snuck into the estate where she was being held.

This story is not well known. But, while journalistic fame is fleeting, there was a time when the young reporter who wrote it, Lowell Thomas, would be as well known as any American journalist ever has been. And his Helen Morton story – derring-do and all – was untrue. The interview never took place.

It is not clear that young Lowell’s goal was to have some fun, to pull off a hoax. His motivation may simply have been career advancement. Certainly, the story was not treated as having been in good fun. When the Journal’s managing editor finally found out what Thomas had done, he was furious. He did not call it a “hoax”; he called it “a fake from start to finish.” Whatever fun there had been in journalistic fabrications, to use our modern term for them, was disappearing.

It is no coincidence that at about this time universities were gaining their first journalism programs. They taught journalism as a profession, which, like law or medicine, had its own ethical standards – truth telling first among them. And in 1922, when the American Society of Newspaper Editors was formed, its “Code of Ethics” proclaimed the importance for newspapers of “SINCERITY, TRUTHFULNESS, ACCURACY.”

Thomas made clear, in a letter to Walter Cronkite 66 years later, that he had learned an important “lesson” from his Helen Morton fabrication. In the 1930s Thomas became the host of the first and most listened to network radio newscast, as well as the voice and face of the newsreels seen in more American movie theaters than all the others combined. And the journalism Thomas introduced to these new national audiences was not the droll, anything-goes, sensational, cynical journalism he had seen and practiced in Chicago. It was instead earnest, fair-minded and wide ranging – a journalism devoted to keeping Americans informed, particularly about the increasingly dangerous world in which they found themselves.

There would be no room for hoaxes let alone fabrications in what was then in the process of becoming “traditional” American journalism. Of course, a few – out of laziness, insecurity or impishness – would still cheat, but when caught they would be, unlike Lowell Thomas a hundred years ago, severely punished.

Yet this journalism was not without weaknesses of its own. It was vulnerable, in particular, to manipulation by officials. Senator Joseph McCarthy certainly demonstrated that in the late 1940s and early 1950s with his wild charges about Communists in various branches of government – charges that were simply passed on by many American news organizations. It was true that a senator had said that, but it wasn’t true.

During the Vietnam War journalists were offered further lessons in the danger of confusing what officials say with truth. This front-page headline, which appeared over an Associated Press story in the New York Times on July 7, 1964, was not atypical: “VIETNAMESE HALT SHARP RED ATTACK.” Forgetting for a moment the jingoism inherent in the wording of the headline, the story itself turned out to be attributed only to “United States officers” who were allowed to praise their allies – “Government defenders” – for having made “a magnificent show of courage.” Of course, such military successes and shows of “courage” – as proclaimed by Johnson Administration officials and the American military, as dutifully transcribed, at least in the early years of the war, by the press – somehow never managed to eliminate the need for more and more American troops or stave off eventual defeat.

But journalism was slowly changing in this regard, too. The rise of journalism criticism helped: A. J. Liebling began exposing such foolishness in the New Yorker in 1945; the Columbia Journalism Review debuted in 1961. The obvious lies of the Nixon Administration on Watergate and the success of the Washington Post in particular in gathering the necessary facts to expose them also helped accelerate such changes. Official statements were still reported but were more often being investigated.

And today we are making our way further still along the road toward truer truths. We are learning that facts may not be the only language through which journalists might speak. Perhaps they might more often interpret and explain, as Ezra Klein and his cohorts at the new vox.com are doing. Perhaps they might use statistical or other sophisticated means of analysis as Nate Silver and friends at fivethirtyeight.com or David Leonhardt and the crew at the New York Times’ Upshot.com do. Perhaps some expertise on economics or science – more and more on display outside and inside “legacy” news organizations – will prove enlightening. Increasingly this is the argument in journalism: between a traditional reliance upon fact and a more interpretative “wisdom journalism.”

Had some of the above – rejecting fabrication, questioning sources, adding wisdom – occasionally been done earlier? It had been. Do we risk losing what was learned about the importance of truthfulness from Lowell Thomas’ fake story if we switch to an often-opinionated interpretation? There is a danger of that. But it is possible to discern a progression in notions of truth in American journalism over the past hundred years – a progression that has the potential to help us better understand the world.

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David Carr — Good Point, Weak History

David Gregory said out loud to one of our new model journalists what many of the old variety have, I fear, been thinking: “The question of who’s a journalist may be up to a debate with regard to what you’re doing.” The host of NBC’s Meet the Press was questioning the bona-fides of Glenn Greenwald, who had published, in the Guardian, information from secret documents that Edward Snowden had obtained.

The implication was that were Greenwald not considered worthy of the title journalist — because he has an overt point of view — he might not be subject to First Amendment protections: “Why shouldn’t you, Mr. Greenwald, be charged with a crime?” Gregory actually asked Greenwald on Meet the Press.

This is, of course, absurd.  The First Amendment was never intended to protect only objective journalists — in fact it wasn’t designed to protect journalists at all; that term was not in use in James Madison’s America. The First Amendment is concerned with preventing “abridging” of “freedom…of the press.” And many of those who operated presses in Madison’s time did so because they had a point of view to promote — because, in the current vernacular, they were “activists.”

After he helped draft the First Amendment Madison noted how important “a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people” is “to liberty.” Why? Because it “facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments” – i.e. opinions. In fact, when, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word “journalism” is first used in English, in 1833, it is defined as “the intercommunication of opinion and intelligence.”

In his New York Times media column this week, David Carr comes down on the right side of the Glenn Greenwald question — if it can be considered a serious question: “Mr. Greenwald is an activist who is deeply suspicious of government and the national security apparatus, and he is a zealous defender of privacy and civil rights,” Carr writes. “He is also a journalist.”

In defending Greenwald’s right to be seen as a journalist, Carr notes correctly that “the fight between objectivity and subjectivity is a fairly modern one.” In fact, the whole notion that journalists should be “objective” was the product of a relatively short — 150-year-long — and anomalous period in which it was possible to make a good business out of selling news, “intelligence.” But for most of human history — and even, often enough, during those 150 years — people routinely said or wrote what was going on to make a point about what was going on.

Carr’s history is wrong, however, when he writes: “In the 1800s, journalism was underwritten by powerful people, the government or political parties.” Beginning in the 1830s in the larger cities, newspapers became good — and increasingly substantial — businesses. They were usually allied with political parties, but they were not “underwritten by” those parties — or anyone else, besides their owners.

Carr’s more significant error is to treat, near the end of his piece, a strong political perspective — “activism” — as if it were some sort of foreign and suspect substance in journalism, which might “impair vision” and lead to “tendentiousness”; as if it were something right-thinking journalists must tolerate.

In fact, a significant percentage of the greatest works of American “journalism” — from Tom Paine’s “Common Sense” to Horace Greeley’s “Prayer of the Twenty Millions” to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring — were works of opinion, buttressed with various forms of “intelligence.” The presence of opinion in journalism — in columns, blogs, tweets and Glenn Greenwald’s investigations — needs no apology.

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Newspapers: Plus ça change…

Engaging writing is one of the qualities the New York Times and other top newspapers might feature now that they compete for the news with, well, everybody.

But this, alas, was the first sentence of the third paragraph of the lead story in Wednesday morning’s Times (about Rick Santorum quitting the presidential race):

His departure from the race created an anticlimactic moment in the long presidential primary season for Mr. Romney, who has been actively seeking his party’s nomination for five years and found his conservative credentials constantly in question by the durability of Mr. Santorum’s candidacy.

Where to begin…?

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Journalistic Authority — Reconsidered

My colleague Jay Rosen tackles a question much on my mind lately: how journalists obtain authority. For me it’s one corner of the larger question of what standards we might use to evaluate journalism now that journalism is, once again, expanding beyond the who, what and when. Successful attempts at interpretive journalism tend to be well reasoned, carefully supported and insightful. And, yes, they are also likely to weild “authority.”

Jay has waged a number of important battles with traditional journalism; yet he locates that authority where traditional American journalists locate just about everything they like: in reporting. Here, for example, is Bill Keller, until recently top editor of the New York Times:  “By quality journalism I mean the kind that involves experienced reporters going places, bearing witness, digging into records, developing sources, checking and double-checking.” Jay makes clear that he also values “digging,” “sources” and “checking,” but his emphasis is on the first item on Keller’s list: “going places.” “The original source…for all forms of authority in journalism,” Jay writes, “is to be found in the phrase: ‘I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.'”

If journalistic authority does indeed stem from being there, then it is not restricted to professional journalists but is available to others — many others — who happen to find themselves or manage to get themselves somewhere the rest of us are not.  This is a virtue for Jay,  a proponent of citizen journalism; it’s a problem for Keller (as can be seen from his use of the word “experienced” in the above quote).  Indeed, it has proven to be a problem for most professional journalists: for the days when they were the only ones “there” with a notepad, a camera and the ability to reach an audience are mostly gone.

Merely being there and telling us about it has, consequently, lost much of its value. And the sources Keller talks about developing are now often on the Web themselves; even the mechanisms for checking have been in some ways democratized — thanks to Google, thanks to various forms of instant feedback. Increasingly, in fact, we don’t need anyone, professional or amateur, to tell us what is happening somewhere: our fingers — on a keyboard, on a touch screen — can take us to a video or webcam and let us do the observing ourselves.

As I have argued and will argue in a forthcoming book, journalists are, therefore, losing the ability to make a living simply by providing copious, careful accounts of what they see and hear. There are exceptions of course: some reporters still manage to come upon or uncover goings on — atrocities, corruption — few others are seeing. In these crucial circumstances, being there — witnessing, investigating — gives these reporters something important and exclusive to tell us.  But such circumstances are rare. Journalists today increasingly have to add value not through their observations and interviews but through their insights: “I’ve thought this through, you probably have not.”

And that opens the door (if it was ever shut) to additional sources of authority. Being there can be valuable for interpretive journalism but so is reading, so is conversation, so is academic study. Yes, we want reporters to be out talking to the unemployed or sifting through papers at AIG, but Paul Krugman does not have to be on Wall Street or at the White House to hold forth, with authority, on the financial crisis; he has credentials in economics. Nate Silver does not have to ride campaign buses to report, with authority, on a political horserace; we turn to him instead because of his facility with, and good sense about, statistics. As journalism becomes less about collecting the who, what and when, and more about explaining why and what’s next, geographical authority is increasingly less important than intellectual authority.

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Missing the Political Power of the Internet

Television was probably the new form of communication that lent itself most to control by the powers that were. In the early decades of the medium’s history, a television transmitter was sufficiently expensive so that it was well beyond the reach of anyone outside of a large corporation or a government. And television transmitters were large enough, permanent enough and visible enough for governments to easily regulate or control. There were, consequently, few if any insurgent television broadcasts, few if any calls for insurrection were broadcast on TV.

Nonetheless, the case can be made no new invention shook up the world so fast and so much.

Why? Because the world is shaken not just by revolutionary rhetoric and calls to the streets. The world is shaken — probably shaken most powerfully — by new information. And in its early decades TV was filled with information many had never seen before in a form that was particularly easy to access: moving images.

“In the mid- and late-1950s, millions of deep-South blacks received direct and unfiltered racial news for the first time,” Ben Bagdikian has noted. Bagdikian’s argument is that television in the United States played a role (not the only role, of course) in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s and later the race riots of the late 1960s. In, famously, bringing war “into living rooms,” TV also played a role in the anti-war protests of the late 1960s.

“It is perhaps not generally realized that a refrigerator can be a revolutionary symbol – to a people who have no refrigerators,” Marshall McLuhan has noted. Television, even if watched through a store window or on a community set, showed consumer goods to people in countries where they were not widely available. The medium has been credited with a role in the anti-colonial movement and various third- and second-world upheavals.

So when trying to figure out what role the Internet, social media, smart phones, etc., have played in the ongoing protests and revolts in the Middle East, it is not enough to look for angry websites or tweets announcing rallies. The question is what these new forms of communication have helped people know that they did not before know — what these new forms of communication have helped people know that has made them more difficult to rule.

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Journalism and News: Untangling Their Histories

Here’s my talk to the Joint Journalism Historians Conference in New York yesterday. It contains some ideas I’m working on for my book on the future of journalism.  As a blog post it is rather long. So here is a summary:

  • Journalists and those who think about their work too often confuse journalism and news.
  • We don’t even have a good definition of journalism. (I hazard one at the end of this talk.)
  • Too often journalism is seen as synonymous with the gathering and dissemination of news.
  • This, however, is a view of journalism that comes from one anomalous period in the history of journalism: the period of mass circulation, when it was for the first and, perhaps, the last time in human history possible to make a big business out of selling news.
  • News gathering and dissemination were not seen as the primary purposes of “the press” in the decades before and after the founding of the United States.
  • That is a narrow view of journalism’s purposes and one that leaves the field ill prepared for the future.
  • Because the period of mass circulation is ending. News is once again being given away for free. The big business of gathering and disseminating news looks to be over.
  • Journalists will have to find something new to sell.
  • My suggestion is that their most salable product will be interpretation. “Wisdom journalism,” I call it.

I have something rather embarrassing to say about our discipline: The two main subjects we talk about as journalism scholars, journalism instructors, journalism historians are journalism and news – and we often fail distinguish between them and fail to understand their relationship.

Take, for example, this crisis we seem to be undergoing. We speak of a “crisis in journalism” or a “crisis for news” – as if the two were interchangeable. I am going to argue that they very definitely are not.

We speak of the “future of journalism” and the “future of news” as if they shared the same future. I have been arguing that they don’t – although my argument on the “future of journalism” was then included in a collection on the “future of news.”

My perspective here will be in large part historical. However, I believe this relationship has significant implications for the future of journalism (not news).

This is a subject I’ve written about a few times and am doing a book on. What I want to do in this talk is outline my thesis. And as I do that, I want to go over with you a couple of the problems I am having with it.

My argument begins by noting how often we take for granted a view of journalism as almost entirely dependent on the gathering and dissemination of information.

Here is Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times: “By quality journalism I mean the kind that involves experienced reporters going places, bearing witness, digging into records, developing sources, checking and double-checking….to supply you with the information you need to be an engaged citizen.”

For most of human history, of course, there were no such reporters. There was no such thing as what Keller calls “quality journalism.”

There was, however, news – plenty of it. It was exchanged for free. And it was exchanged by, more or less, everyone – experienced and inexperienced, careful and sloppy.

I have never seen evidence of a society in which people did not tell and hear news openly, enthusiastically, aggressively, often urgently. For good reason: groups that exchanged news of threats and opportunities energetically would seem to have been more likely to survive.

History does offer some intriguing examples of individuals who specialized in the exchange of news, starting with the messengers and criers who seem to have been part of many traditional societies and including the first printed newspapers which begin to appear in Europe early in the 17th century.

Many societies have, obviously, devoted resources to facilitating the exchange of news. Some individuals found a place in their societies as news distributors. Some even supported themselves doing that.

The words “journalism” or “journalist” were not used in their current meaning until – as I understand it – the eighteenth century in France and the nineteenth century in England and America. But might these early efforts qualify as journalism? Does journalism begin somewhere on that list?

And this is where my project achieves its first problem and I recently suffered some embarrassment:

When I presented these thoughts last semester up at Columbia before some PhD students and faculty there. It was noted, correctly alas, that my terms were not well defined.

I think I have a pretty decent definition of news: “new information about a subject of some public interest that is shared with some portion of the public.”

But how do you define journalism?

When confronted on this question up at Columbia, I had recourse to the last resort of the trapped scholar: I turned the question on them: how would you define it? The folks at Columbia had some interesting ideas, but no one in the room had a solid definition. Isn’t this a little strange? All of us journalism professors without a definition of what journalism is.

I’ve had John Sillings, a wonderful undergraduate researcher, begin looking into it:

Here’s Jim Carey, as paraphrased by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel: “Perhaps in the end journalism simply means carrying on and amplifying the conversation of people themselves.” Any conversation? And who is doing the carrying on and amplifying?

Kovach and Rosenstiel are fonder of the definition proposed by Jack Fuller, former president of the Tribune Company, back when it was a decent, solvent company. Fuller: “The central purpose of journalism is to tell the truth so that people will have the information they need to be sovereign.” That is a purpose of journalism (there are certainly others). But I fear it is not a definition of journalism.

John Sillings found another definition in a book out of Prague in 1978, by Vladimir Hudec. I like this definition somewhat better, although it is a little cumbersome. Here’s how it begins: “Under the term journalism we understand collections of pieces of work either written or printed, spoken or pictorial…which in a documentary way depict topical social reality….” One problem: Hudec seems to be defining journalism as that which manages to look like journalism and appears in places where we expect to see journalism.

This is a question with legal implications. Too strict a definition a definition of “journalist” could constrict first amendment liberties. The Second Circuit Court of Appeals, consequently, came up with a very broad definition in 1987, when considering shield law protections: “an intent to…disseminate information to the public.” Quite broad indeed. It might include novelists and advertisers as well as Diane Sawyer and Ezra Klein.

The Ninth Circuit was a bit more explicit: “the critical question for deciding whether a person may invoke the journalists’ privilege is whether she is gathering news for dissemination to the public.”

What I like best about that definition is that it means our confusion and embarrassment are well shared. For the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has come up with a definition of journalism that, in my view, would exclude much of the journalism of the decades before and after the First Amendment was written.

Here’s a quote from Ben Franklin in 1731 that I like: “the Business of Printing has chiefly to do with Men’s Opinions, most things that are printed tending to promote some or oppose others….”

The “business of printing” – writing for, editing and printing newspapers he means – was not primarily the exchange of news.

Let me emphasize this: what we would call “journalism” did not have much to do, in the decades before and after this country was founded, with Keller’s “reporters going places, bearing witness, digging into records, developing sources, checking and double-checking.”

In Franklin’s day, in Jefferson’s day, in Madison’s day such reporters simply did not exist. The variety of “quality journalism” Bill Keller insists is needed “to supply you with the information you need to be an engaged citizen” did not exist in the decades when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were written and this country was founded.

James Madison, of course, was very alert to how important “a circulation of newspapers through the entire body of the people” is “to liberty.” But his explanation for it has very little to do with anyone going places, bearing witness, digging into records or developing sources. His argument for the value of newspapers has little to do with the gathering or dissemination of news. Instead, Madison writes, that a free press is of value because it “facilitates a general intercourse of sentiments” – uh, opinions.

Neither the Ninth Circuit nor Bill Keller says anything about opinions, sentiments or their cousins.

You can watch people’s understandings of the relationship between newspapers and news begin to change in the 19th century.

The word “journalism” is now finally beginning to be used in English in its modern sense. It is defined 1833, in its first English usage according to the OED, (in an article translated from French) as “the intercommunication of opinion and intelligence.”

Journalism, then, was beginning to be seen as a mixing of sentiments and news. There wasn’t much doubt which was the more respected half – the “quality” half – of this mix or “intercommunication”:

In an 1869 magazine article on journalism, the American essayist Richard Grant White writes: “Of the two branches of journalism, which are the gathering and the publication of news and the discussion and explanation of the events thus made public, the former is the more essential, the latter the more important.”

White ends up dismissing the former occupation, “essential” as it may be, as “almost purely mercantile and clerical.”

But then the world enters an odd period. A series of new technologies arrive: mechanical – the steam press, the rotary press, the linotype machine – and electronic – the telegraph, radio, television.

These technologies share a strength: they are remarkably good at moving news – fast, far, to large numbers of people.

But they also share limitations: They are expensive. Only fairly large businesses can afford them. And, in part because of that, they are one-way. The communication, as our Internet gurus like to point out, is all one to many – mass communication.

The result – for the first time in human history and perhaps the last: The exchange of news became a professional sport.

The result – for the first time in human history and perhaps the last: It became possible to make a business out of the exchange of news. News could be made to move fast enough, far enough and in enough copies so that it could for the first time be mass-produced and sold – at a good profit.

And since there was so much money to be made in “the gathering and the publication of news” – what White called the “almost purely mercantile and clerical” side of journalism – it began to take over journalism.

This odd period when it was possible to make a business out of the exchange of news – the period when all those powerful means of finding and disseminating news were expensive and controlled by large businesses – lasted about a century and a half.

It was the period in which Bill Keller and many others of us learned journalism. It was the period in which most of our ideas about journalism were formed.

That is why many still confuse journalism with news.

But this period was an anomaly, and it has ended.

In the last couple of decades our machines for moving and disseminating news fast, far and to many have fallen in price to the point where masses of us can now employ them.

The exchange of news is now once again an activity in which amateurs can engage.

And news – even the fastest news from the farthest away – now once again comes free – as free as it once was in a marketplace or at a crossroads.

News is not facing a crisis – there’s more of it than ever before, moving faster, coming from all over:

  • It comes on twitter and on blogs.
  • It comes live and unmediated on cable and on YouTube.
  • We see the press conference, and then the transcript of the press conference and then the Associated Press or Reuters stories on the press conference as quickly as they see it in the New York Times newsroom.

Often — in other words — we can bear witness ourselves at home

Bill Keller’s witness bearers may occasionally get themselves someplace that no one with a video camera or a twitter account has gotten to.

They may do some truly useful investigating. I certainly don’t want that to stop.

Bill Keller’s “experienced reporters” may be able to obtain an extra quote and produce a more thorough account.

They may occasionally manage to obtain – or be handed – an exclusive.

But lots of Internet journalists are pretty smart and they get some exclusives and even do some investigations. And most of us know how to find plenty of bloggers and tweeters who really don’t make many mistakes and when they do correct themselves or are corrected even faster than traditional journalists.

New York Times Front PageSo for the most part the news the New York Times gets – its take this morning on the earthquake in Japan, for example –is readily available faster, for free and with rather high quality elsewhere.

Which means journalists – if they want to earn a living – are going to have to find something else to sell besides news

This is the crisis. It is a crisis for journalism.

And it means that journalists – except maybe for those who work for organizations like the AP and Reuters – have to lose the idea that their role is mostly to gather and disseminate news.

And the answer to what they might sell besides news – not a perfect answer, I understand – can be found in the other branch, the more respected branch of journalism, as defined by Richard Grant White in 1869: “the discussion and explanation of…events.”

So I am arguing that now that news is once again free journalists are going to have to sell interpretations of that news. They are going to have to provide an interesting take on events.

I call it “wisdom journalism.”

Journalism is going to have to be once again untangled from news.

That is my thesis.

But here I have another problem, also at least in part definitional: and that is that it is hard to explain exactly I mean by “interpretation.”

  • What is the difference between “interpretation” and “analysis”?
  • Where does wise interpretation end and ranting and raving begin?
  • Is it possible to come up with a definition of “interpretation” or “wisdom journalism” that distinguishes it, in some way, from all the shrill, unenlightening, prejudice-confirming verbiage that passes for commentary on some cable-news programs and radio talk shows?
  • What about “objectivity”?
  • Are there categories of opinion – some enlightening and some not, or just some opinions we like and some we don’t like?

We have spent a lot of time in journalism departments categorizing the different types of news stories. Where is a typology of interpretation?

And I have one additional problem that I want to kvetch about with you: some people (difficult as this may be for you to believe) hear what I am saying and insist that it is absurd:

Free our better journalists from responsibility for gathering and disseminating news? Who then is going to tell us what is going on:

  • Blogging high school students?
  • Public relations people?
  • Glenn Beck?
  • Who will ask the tough questions?
  • Who will do the digging?
  • Who will, indeed, bear witness?

Many – particularly many professional journalists – can’t imagine a news ecology that is not actively cultivated, supervised, managed by professional journalists. Some can’t imagine such an ecology not managed by newspaper journalists.

On the other hand – and I am still kvetching — some point out, correctly for the most part. that what I am calling for already exists, is obvious.

The New York Times – they note or should note – already includes much more interpretation and much less stenographic reporting than it did twenty, ten or even five years ago. And the Web is full of interpretation.

My response is that I am not so much arguing for something revolutionary as arguing against reactionary understandings – such as those of Bill Keller or the Ninth Circuit – understandings that take an view of journalism based on one period in the history of journalism, a period that is ending, and assume that that is all journalism might ever be.

Here’s my first stab at a definition of journalism: Journalism is the activity of collecting, presenting, interpreting or commenting upon the news for some portion of the public.”

The Ninth Circuit will has to realize that it is protecting the right to interpret and even comment upon the news, not just to gathering and disseminating it.

The New York Times has to realize that that its business today and tomorrow – probably its primary business – is interpreting not just bearing witness.

  • That may mean assigning people capable of interpreting the news to each of the major news stories of the day.
  • That may mean hiring very different kinds of journalists: more people like Nate Silver or Paul Krugman, fewer Jimmy Olsens and Lois Lanes.

We all have to realize that while journalism is about news, it is much more than just a means for collecting and distributing news.

Posted in Future of journalism., Journalism education | 2 Comments

Reporting on Love?

Ah, Love….

Novelists and filmmakers earn their livings off the subject. (Just finished Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which, at its best, is a love story.)

Love and its discontents is often what we talk about when we talk with intimate friends.

But — except when it involves celebrities, murderers or adulterous politicians — love tends to be ignored by journalists.

Carl Sessions Stepp of the University of Maryland and the American Journalism Review included this oversight in his diagnosis of journalism’s problems — among the most interesting I’ve heard (I paraphrase; unfortunately I was not taking notes):

American news organizations today do not cover love and they do not cover spiritual questions, Carl suggested — and these are the two subjects in which young people have most interest. (When queried on the word “spiritual,” Carl explained that he defined it broadly to cover considerations about the purpose of life.)

I’ve been thinking about Carl’s analysis as I work on a book for Oxford encouraging more adventurous, more far-reaching, more sensitive forms of journalism and journalism education. His point about the lack of reporting on attempts to puzzle out life’s possible purposes is important. But at the moment I’m focused on love and its absence from most journalism. Indeed, I’m currently searching for exceptions that prove the rule and might help point the way to changing that rule: examples of good journalism about love.

Since I first heard Carl on the subject, the New York Times has developed its excellent “Modern Love” feature — the first place quite a few people I know turn in the Sunday paper. (Might someone point me to favorite installments? Are other news organizations now doing similar?) Dear Abby and now some online advice columns have managed to sneak in a little romance journalism. But I have searched my collection of great journalistic writing in vain for reporting on the subject of ordinary, and ordinarily profound, love. What am I missing?

And then, of course, there’s the question of why: why ignore this emotion that, more than any other, can build us up and tear us down.

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Are New Media Destabilizing?


Tunisia.  Egypt.  Yemen.  Bahrain.  Libya.  Iran.

Media theorists Harold Innis and Ben Bagdikian have trumpeted the destabilizing power of new forms of communication.  Are we now witnessing instability spurred by the arrival of the Internet?

Innis, who died in 1952, is credited with getting his fellow University of Toronto professor, Marshall McLuhan, thinking about the transformative power of media. Perhaps the most interesting of Innis’ own ideas was that forms of communication create “monopolies of knowledge,” which can in turn be shattered by new forms of communication. One example: how the spread in Europe of paper and printing, both controlled by merchants in the cities, overturned rural monasteries’ control of book learning. When monopolies of knowledge crumble, Innis was arguing, political and religious hierarchies can teeter or topple. The Reformation, which would lead to religious wars throughout Europe, followed close on the heels of the printing press. (See Jeff Jarvis.)

Ben Bagdikian, a long-time Berkeley journalism professor, applied Innis’ idea to a series of periods of turmoil. Bagdikian connects, for example, the revolutions and rebellions that raged over Europe in 1848 to the communications revolution of the previous decades. Bagdikian is not enough of a technological determinist to ignore the fact that the “basic causes” of those revolutions and rebellions “involved the Industrial Revolution and urbanization, with the consequent growth of nationalism and individualism.” But he insists that “new communications accelerated the change and in so doing caused events to happen differently.” Those new forms of communication included the steamship, the railroad and the telegraph, all of which allowed, for the first time in human history, messages to travel faster than a horse or a pigeon. “The spread of information, the broadening of the range of ideas and the consciousness of mutual knowledge propagated the political epidemics of 1848,” Bagdikian concludes in his book, The Information Machines.

That book was published in 1971, with more recent instabilities in mind: “The spasms of change in American society in the mid-1960s,” Bagdikian argues, “are attributable in large part to new methods of communication.” Foremost among those new methods: television. Most of the perpetrators of the anti-war demonstrations, cultural clashes and race riots of the 1960s were members of the first American generation to grow up watching TV.

This is not historical theorizing at its most rigorous. How can you prove that one or another new form of communication was a necessary cause of a period of instability? Instability, after all, has never been in short supply.  Still, Innis and Bagdikian do seem to have been on to something in arguing that major changes in the way people communicate can make it more difficult for authorities to govern. And we have, of late, been undergoing a series of major changes in the way people communicate.

One lesson that might be drawn from the Innis-Bagdikian analyses is that it takes a while for a medium to reach the point where it might destabilize. Electronic television was invented in 1927. Commercial television began in the United States in 1948. But a new generation had to come of age before the campuses and the inner cities began to shake, rattle and roll.

How long might it take for the Internet and its various cousins to encourage similar instability — if they are going to encourage similar instability. Have we just witnessed the most powerful of the disruptions with Wikileaks or the demonstrations in the Middle East? (Might, for that matter, the Tea Party demonstrations of recent years be credited to a different mix of media: talk radio, cable television and the Internet?) Or are there more widespread revolutions to come as a generation that has been living on smart phones, Facebook and Twitter since it was young comes of age?

Inherent in Innis’ theory is the notion that as the new, once revolutionary forms of communication begin to be co-opted and controlled by authorities a new “monopoly of knowledge” will eventually form. Ben Bagdikian puts this point thusly: “Usually, the instability of new knowledge continues until the established order not only drops its objection but adopts the new mode to preserve whatever remains of its influence, changing from an enemy to a champion of the new communication.”

Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon, for example, didn’t quite know what to do with television — with its raw images of war, its taste for satire, its incessant desire to peek behind the scenes. By the time of Ronald Reagan, however, presidential handlers had learned a thing or two about the medium: They knew where to place the flags and when to release the balloons to make sure the cameras would get a flattering shot. They learned when to release good or bad news and on what shows to appear. Television became a president’s friend.

By this way of thinking (and in line with what I suggested in a previous post), what we are seeing in Egypt and Tunisia — “propagated,” in part by social media — is not the beginning of a great age of people power. It is just an interesting moment: a period of instability that will end when authorities — democratic or despotic — learn to use social media to their ends. (This is an interesting light in which to view Evgeny Morozov’s assertions.)

And by this way of thinking Julian Assange, Wikileaks and the glorious desire of digital information to be free do not represent the beginning of an age of hyper-transparency, with governments unable to keep a secret. They represent instead the moment — with all its attendant instability — before governments master the art of keeping secrets in the age of interconnected computers.

How long these interesting moments might last, what beyond Mubarak and Ben Ali might be overthrown, who besides diplomats will be discomfitted, we don’t know.

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New Media and the American Revolution

The argument that various new social media did not contribute much to the popular uprising in Egypt had a pretty good run during the first weeks of that uprising. Frank Rich quoted, approvingly, Malcolm Gladwell on the subject: “’surely the least interesting fact’ about the Egyptian protesters is that some of them ‘may (or may not) have at one point or another employed some of the tools of the new media to communicate with one another.’”

My colleague Jay Rosen has been particularly alert to the dishonesties inherent in such attempts to dismiss the power of news media. Here’s an additional, historical perspective: Would Rich and Gladwell have found equally uninteresting the contributions to the American Revolution of the continent’s fledgling newspapers? Historians at the time found those contributions of great significance. In his 1789 history of events just a decade or two earlier, David Ramsay writes, “In establishing American independence, the pen and the press had a merit equal to that of the sword.” The pen was an old form of communication by the second half of the eighteenth century. But the newspapers and pamphlets that published the output of various engaged pens were still relatively new in the colonies. Calling them “new media” seems appropriate.

We all understand that newspapers or Facebook pages and Twitter alerts by themselves are not enough to overthrow a government.  You need grievances, outrages, ideology, organization, courage and — in American in the eighteenth century but thankfully not in Egypt in the twenty-first — guns. In Cairo there were hundreds of thousands of people, flesh and blood people, in the streets. In the American colonies there were armies in the field. Tweets did not occupy Tahrir Square. Newspapers did not fire back at the Redcoats. But Tweets as well as newspapers can help change, in John Adams’ famous phrase, “minds and hearts.”

Rich, Gladwell and the other debunkers neglect the importance of that which clarifies, amplifies and spreads grievances and outrages, and inspires people to take to the streets or take up arms.. One of Britain’s men in the colonies, New York’s lieutenant governor, Cadwallader Colden, did not neglect that factor. “Every suggestion that could tend to lessen the attachment to the mother Country, and to raise an Odium against her,” he fumes in a letter to England, “have been repeatedly published.” And, in case the word “published” in Colden’s letter seems ambiguous, here’s John Holt, the leading anti-British editor in New York: “It was by means of News papers that we receiv’d & spread the Notice of the tyrannical Designs formed against America, and kindled a Spirit that has been sufficient to repel them.”

As relatively new forms of communication, American newspapers from 1765 to 1776 had significant advantages as engines of revolution: they were small, lithe, light-footed and close to their audiences. American newspapers were mostly free of the routines and cautiousness of established institutions: they were prepared to take risks and unafraid of experiment.  They were, often enough, intemperate: “British officials and their supporters were variously ‘serpents,’ ‘guileful betrayers,’ ‘diabolical Tools of Tyrants’, or ‘Men totally abandoned to Wickedness.'” (Here, as elsewhere, I am quoting from my book A History of News.) Twitter feeds and Facebook pages share, often enough, all these qualities.

And in America in the eighteenth century, the powers that were had not yet divined how to manipulate or control newspapers. British efforts at repression and control were intermittent and mostly late —  as were the Mubarak regime’s efforts to shut down the Internet.

Twitter and Facebook in Egypt “spread…Notice” — before and after the government shut the Internet down. Social media in Egypt also “kindled a spirit” and helped change “minds and hearts.” Wael Ghonim “published” a Facebook page accusing police in Alexandria of beating to death a young man who had come upon evidence of corruption. It accumulted 70,000 supporters and has been widely credited with helping inspire the anti-Mubarak protests. As newspaper printers, editors and writers — Ben Franklin, Sam Adams — were among the leaders of the American revolution, Wael Ghonim, a Google executive as well as a Facebook enthusiast, has been a leader in Egypt.

New media, in other words, can certainly help spread revolution. (While editing this post, I see Jeff Jarvis has made a somewhat similar analogy to the introduction of the printing press in Europe. I’ll be taking on themes more similar to his in my next post.) In France in the eighteenth century, the Old Regime tightly controlled the press: Paris had only four newspapers in 1788. But the job of kindling spirit was well handled by underground books, libelles and nouvelles à la main — new media at the time. Once the revolution commenced, new kinds of newspapers were able to take over. In Paris, in 1790 335 newspapers appeared.

Indeed, it is difficult to think of a revolution that did not benefit from some new media — from the printing press during the Reformation (Jarvis’ example) to FM radio and underground newspapers in the 1960s. You need a form of communication that is, for the moment, yours — a form with which the Old Regime is not, for the moment, comfortable. Facebook and Twitter are, from this perspective, important. But Facebook and Twitter are not, from this perspective, original. And Facebook and Twitter, while like the European letter press a democratizing force, probably do not, from this perspective, usher in some new age of permanent revolution or people power.

Posted in Power of new media | 6 Comments

Belatedly Blogging

This is my second blog but my first on my main field: journalism. (I blogged for a year on the history of disbelief for the Institute for Future of the Book.) This effort is inspired by two ongoing book projects:  Beyond News on the future of journalism for Columbia University Press; and Journalism Unbound on new directions for journalism and journalism education for Oxford University Press. I plan to try out some ideas for both projects here.

But this blog has also been motivated by the itch to weigh in more regularly on journalism and the news — an itch that has grown more insistent of late. There’s never any shortage of news and, as I like to point out, there’s always a lively debate on coverage of that news. Still, that debate has grown particularly interesting in recent years as old forms of journalism die and new forms are created.

I’ll have things to say about the deaths and the births — mostly from a historical perspective. I will argue that the future 0f journalism and the future of news are not the same. I will pounce on some of the limitations of journalism — old and new — and call, not surprisingly, for it to become wiser, deeper, broader. I will also suggest, and this is more controversial, that journalism ought to obsess less about the events of the day and more about interpreting the events of the day.

I flatter myself in thinking that, along the way, I might correct some misunderstandings and shed some light. We’ll see.

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