NPR’s firing of news analyst Juan Williams last week has caused much consternation in the mainstream media and throughout the blogosphere about the boundary between traditional, unbiased journalism and opinion journalism. Many have argued that it is impractical and unfair to expect journalists to not have opinions; others have argued that all opinions aside, journalists are ethically obligated to avoid even the appearance of bias.
Let’s be straight: journalists, like everybody else, have opinions. Often, because they are so well-informed about current events, they have some very strong opinions. Juan Williams has a right to his opinion, and to voice it. What Williams does not have is the right to work for NPR, particularly in violation of their employment policies (by exercising his right to spout hatespeech).
But, the whole Williams debacle has raised a larger question for me: what is the real difference between bloggers and journalists?
Here in Arizona, a local reporter, Josh Brodesky, railed against the supposed bias of local bloggers in an opinion piece published Sunday in the Arizona Daily Star. In it, Brodesky laments the inherent bias of bloggers, and complains that social media and the Internet is rife with rumour and innuendo that has replaced real news-reporting. Brodesky reserves special vitriol for the prolific, influential, and well-read AZBlueMeanie, one of my fellow bloggers over at Blog for Arizona. Brodesky pretty much blames the Meanie for all the “truthiness” in Arizona politics today:
Welcome to life in the era of “truthiness” – a word comedian Stephen Colbert has famously used as a proxy for ersatz truth. It no longer matters if information is locked down and factual: It just needs to look and sound like it is. Throw it up online and see if it sticks. Who cares about the consequences?
Brodesky further argued that the Meanie’s anonymity allowed him to make wild, and false, accusations.
As the Blue Meanie, White can name-call a now-former journalist a “talentless hack” or a politician “the wannabe tin-horn dictator of Tucson.” He just can’t risk having his name tagged to it.
We get it, Mr. Brodesky – you don’t like bloggers, and you especially don’t like the Meanie.
Brodesky claims that because reporters, unlike bloggers, sign their names to their stories, they are morally and professionally obligated to be truthful. By contrast, Brodesky laments that anonymous bloggers like the AZBlueMeanie “cause the targets of his attacks harm” by writing carelessly and libellously about them. Well, one might make the same argument against journalists who publish stories that take down any public figure. Eliot Spitzer’s political career was destroyed in part by journalists who mercilessly reported on the “Client-9” debacle; did those journalists deserve condemnation because of the consequences of their writing? Obviously not. By extension, the Meanie should only be criticized for causing his targets harm if he lied to do so. Being a blogger might make Meanie biased, but it does not, de facto, also make the Meanie a liar. Yet this, argues Brodesky, is why journalists are superior to bloggers.
Journalists are required to sign their names to their stories, and they also answer to an editorial board that fact-checks their stories. It’s difficult — but not impossible — for a reporter to blatantly lie in their stories. Bloggers, on the hand, answer to no one. We occasionally “report” news, but more often than not, we opinionate. We self-publish, and are generally (but not always) protected from libel and defamation lawsuits. What keeps a blogger from lying through his or her teeth? Nothing but his or her own personal code of morality and ethics. But, I would argue that the same is true for journalists: traditional reporters can apparently go a long time fabricating the news without getting caught.
Further, does the discerning reader actually defer to the blogosphere rumour mill as their unfettered source of news? Brodesky cited recent rumours that Governor Jan Brewer is deathly ill (a rumour started by a former Democratic candidate for governor) as evidence that people will believe anything bloggers tell them. But it seems to me that most of the politicos who had heard the “Brewer is sick” rumour characterized it as just that: an unsubstantiated rumour. Then again, Brodesky claims he doesn’t read blogs, so maybe he puts more weight on online rumours than the average, intelligent blog reader does.
But the bigger question is: are bloggers like myself or the AZBlueMeanie passing ourselves off as traditional journalists, trying to replace the Josh Brodeskys of the world?
Although I’m relatively young, I consider myself a veteran blogger; I have been maintaining this blog for nearly ten years. In that time, I’ve had the wonderful opportunity to witness, and report on, news-making events. I’ve been lucky enough to meet and interview bonafide news-makers. I’ve been given the opportunity to advance screen movies, review books, and even attend events on a press pass. Occasionally, I find myself — much to electroman’s chagrin — accidentally referring to myself as a journalist or a reporter. It’s a bad habit of mine.
I’m not a journalist. I’m a blogger.
I’ve never gone to journalism school (for as much as that matters). I don’t have an editor. I don’t care (much) about readership (re: pageviews) or headlines or trying to sell papers. I write what I think, nothing more. And, I am completely, and totally, biased. You should not be coming here for unbiased reporting of the news. I don’t have the spare time to go be an investigative journalist, anyways.
But, we also can’t get around the fact that, since their inception, blogs have grown exponentially in popularity, while traditional news outlets are suffering a slow death. Bloggers are unfettered by the need to consider only “news-worthy” stories; local stories find their way onto blogs far more often than they do in the real world. The Iranian protests of last year, for example, were far better covered on Twitter than in the mainstream news. And CNN just picked up the story of anti-Asian bullying in Southern Philadelphia high schools, eleven months after the incident was first reported in the Asian American blogosphere. CNN has recognized the power of “amateur journalists” to break compelling news, and has incorporated a blogging community – called iReport — into their main news site.
The bias exemplified — hell, embraced — by most bloggers is also why blogs attract so much readership. Bloggers are the very definition of opinion journalists; we are the original, online Jon Stewarts and Stephen Colberts. And, let’s face it, that shit is entertaining (and also occasionally informative). Given the choice between watching Stewart and watching CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, most would choose to watch Stewart. Opinion journalism has all the appearance of authenticity, while providing the added “benefit” of entertainment.
But, let’s not pretend that bloggers still have a monopoly on opinion journalism. With the growing popularity of the blogging medium, mainstream news outlets have thrown all pretense of being unbiased out the window. A quick perusal of CNN, MSNBC, and FOX news at primetime reveals a wide variety of opinion news shows — O’Reilly Factor, The Rachel Maddow Show, Countdown with Keith Olbermann — have replaced traditional anchor news shows. Regardless of the broadcaster, all opinion news shows have the same format: a gregarious personality yells at you for an entire 10-15 minute segment, prompted in their ranting by current events. In all cases, they deliver the same, biased message: Vote for this guy, and not that guy, because that guy’s stupid.
Arizona is no different. Most of the political coverage in this state depends upon two or three well-known traditional journalists, many of whom are biased in their coverage. The Weekly, the Star, and the now-defunct Citizen: politicos in this state know exactly where the editorial boards of these papers stand, and how candidates on either side of the aisle will be treated by them. The most well-read source for political coverage in Southern Arizona is The Skinny written predominantly by Jim Nintzel in the Tucson Weekly, and in it, Nintzel hardly pretends to be unbiased.
So, if traditional journalists are starting to look and act a little more like bloggers every day, why the perpetual condescension from “old school” journalists against bloggers? Because, as Brodesky asserts, bloggers are anonymous?
In my decade as a blogger, I have tried (and failed) to blog anonymously. I didn’t use my full name. I didn’t post pictures of myself. I tried to draw a boundary between my professional life and my online life.
It was not, as Brodesky suggests, because I wanted to be able to “name-call” without having to put my name behind it. It was a matter of protection.
Unlike reporters, who carry the full weight of a paper’s legal team when they write, bloggers are literally out on a limb by ourselves. We are not paid to blog, and few of us do it for a living. We literally have no cover from those whom we write about, particularly if they choose to retaliate for something we wrongly — or rightfully — say about them. We write often because we see no one else covering the topics we think should be covered, but in so doing, bloggers make ourselves exceedingly vulnerable.
For me, I am still developing my professional career. I will have to go through numerous job search processes before I will be settled into a permanent position. My political views shouldn’t affect my job search, but we all know that they might. To that end, I have tried to anonymously blog to protect my future career aspirations. Folks like Brodesky don’t have to worry about that.
Other anonymous bloggers also have legitimate reasons for choosing to blog under a pseudonym, and most of their reasons involve avoiding “Juan Williams”-ing themselves. Most bloggers who blog anonymously believe they are providing a valuable service as an amateur opinion journalist, but — because they don’t have the kind of protection that traditional journalists do — choose to blog anonymously to protect themselves, their families, or their employers. When a traditional journalist says something inflammatory or controversial, they do so knowing that their editorial board and legal team will back them up. When a blogger says something inflammatory or controversial, they’re on their own. The legal system is still struggling to figure out the legal rights and protections of bloggers; until they do, it’s not cowardly for a blogger to decide that they will not, or cannot, endanger themselves or those around them by writing under their own names.
Now, obviously, the Brodeskys of the world would argue that no one forces a blogger to write, and in so doing put ourselves out there. And that is true. But, at the same time, if what bloggers offer were of no value (or blatantly false), no one would read them. Clearly, bloggers are filling a niche that traditional journalists are failing to fill.
The bottom line is that traditional journalists are a necessity, but they are also a dying breed. I don’t think the move towards opinion journalism by major mainstream news outlets is a good thing. We, as a society, need unbiased news sources in order to check and balance those in power.
But at the same time, part of that system of checks and balances is for the populace to have an outlet with which to express their dissatisfaction with the powers-that-be. Blogs are our contemporary town square, our “Letters to the Editor section” on a massive, global, self-published scale. Blogs are where the Average Joe can find a voice to talk about our personal narrative, to present our views to the public, and to spark discussion with our fellow constituents. Blogs allow public officials to take the pulse of their constituency, and to (hopefully) represent us better, as a result. And blogs also serve to tell traditional journalists when they are fucking up.
It serves no useful purpose for a traditional journalist like Brodesky to rail against bloggers for doing a piss-poor job of being a journalist. Bloggers aren’t journalists, but nor are we really trying to be. We simply don’t have the resources, or the institutional protection, to be journalists. We are merely opinionators with the power to self-publish our thoughts — any blogger who claims to be anything else is delusional. Journalists who are angry that bloggers are winning the war against newspapers shouldn’t be angry at bloggers whom people like reading more than journalists; instead, maybe journalists should try doing their own jobs better.
When a traditional, or “old school”, journalist beats up on bloggers (and uses their institutional power to do so), all they’re reacting to is the fact that we no longer want or need them to filter our news for us. The average reader still needs journalists to uncover and deliver the unbiased news, but we don’t like the idea of journalists or editors deciding whether our Letters to the Editor are worth publishing, anymore. As Alex Wilhelm of TNW writes:
What we don’t need is for journalists to claim that they are the only useful… (writers) to be found. Yes, people do want the hard facts. And yes, they do want to know what they mean. That is where blogging comes in, we provide perspective along with the facts.”
Some traditional, “old school” journalists apparently can’t handle losing control over the news. Newsflash: get over it.
Oh, and unmasking an anonymous blogger in a newspaper op-ed just ’cuz you don’t like him is about as asshole-ish, as immature, and as petty as one can get. If that’s an “old school” reporter’s idea of “news-worthy”, I think my point regarding the demise of traditional journalism is pretty damn clear. I’m just sayin’.