Monday, June 19, 2006

How The Web Saved Journalism (In Progess)

Pressthink's Jay Rosen has written a justifiably triumphalist retrospective piece for today's WaPo covering the highlights of the Internet's ascent as a force-to-be-reckoned-with in the big-media universe. He covers most of the bases all the cool bloggers rhapsodize about when discussing the medium, including its lower barriers to entry, increased interactivity, stronger feedback loop between audience and publisher, and the unprecedented direct pathway it opens up between newsmakers and the public. Fortunately, Rosen lets us know he understands that Big Media's major malfunction isn't ideological bias or corporate consolidation (although the latter has caused a few secondary problems), but groupthink and hubris:

The day after President Bush was re-elected in 2004, I suggested on my blog that at least some news organizations should consider themselves the opposition to the White House. Only by going into opposition, I argued, could the press really tell the story of the Bush administration's vast expansion of executive power.

That notion simply hadn't been discussed in mainstream newsrooms, which had always been able to limit debate about what is and isn't the job of the journalist. But now that amateurs had joined pros in the press zone, newsrooms couldn't afford not to debate their practices. This is disruptive because if the unthinkable cannot be ignored, professional correctness loses its power.

It should surprise no one that decades of exclusive discussion within the hermetic, rarefied circles of political journalism's most well-known best and brightest might produce a slightly skewed conception of "the public interest." How else could any "respected" practitioner of the trade say something like this and still expect to be taken seriously??
A Pulitzer-prize winning media columnist at the Los Angeles Times, David Shaw, denounced my suggestion after reading about it at Romenesko, an online gathering spot for journalists. He quoted CNN staffers as saying what a terrible idea opposition press would be. Are you nuts? It would instantly destroy our credibility!
Press opposition as credibility-killer. Truly, it boggles the mind—it would have been nice if they'd at least paid lip-service to the Fourth Estate rather than abdicating their democratic obligations straight out of hand. My intuition is that since the muckrake's heyday, successive generations of journalists have driven the profession further and further by degrees from its oppositional origins toward its current state: a quasi-political stream of pap whose main goal seems to be steering clear of criticism. It's not all reporters' and editors' faults; as I hinted earlier, corporate cutbacks have made profit a more pressing imperative, and that means spoiling the reader's appetite as infrequently as possible. But such a perspective makes it very difficult for the news industry to correct its own procedural faults, which is why the task so often falls to the more industrious bloggers out there. And since the peculiarly American journalistic ethos is so oppressively pervasive, it's extremely rare that any organization takes the initiative to break with tradition (Fox and Air America are the only significant outliers in this regard).

The Web has already begun to shake what Rosen calls the "legacy media" out of its complacent stupor, and with any luck it will continue to exert its salubrious influence at ever more fundamental levels. Whether through reform of existing organizations, the rise of new ones, or some combination of the two, the transitional trail we continue to blaze bodes more well than ill for the future.