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Sunday, February 27, 2011

Gate-Keepers in the Commerical Media: Looking Down on Bloggers as "Non-Journalists"

In a few days during July in 2010, the American media was obsessed with Shirley Sherrod, who in a tightly edited video clip had made apparently-racist statements about not helping a caucasion farmer because he was caucasion. She was quickly fired by Tom Vilsak, the US Secretary of Agriculture, who, like the journalists and the NAACP, had failed to look at the full video.  The day after Sherrod was fired, the NAACP looked at the full video and realized that she was actually a racial healer rather than racist.  In the fuller video, she said, “I have come to realize that we have to work together … we have to overcome the divisions we have.”  Even as she used questionable language, such as “his own kind,” it should not be forgotten that the clan killed her father.  In other words, she deserves some slack.  At any rate, it was not long after the NAACP’s about-face that the agriculture department and the media were doing also doing an about-face. According to the NYT, “the White House and Mr. Vilsack offered their profuse apologies to her for the way she had been humiliated and forced to resign after a conservative blogger put out a misleading video clip that seemed to show her admitting antipathy toward a white farmer.”

Bill O’Reilly of Fox apologized—though while suggesting that Sherrod “very well could have seen things through a racial prism” and had been “blatantly partisan” on the job possibly in violation of the Hatch Act so she should not work in government.  O’Reilly was apologizing for not having done due diligence in “reporting” the story by watching the entire video before making a judgement. Like so many other journalists, he lept at the story without adequately checking the source—the video or Sherrod herself.  Even as the journalists were apologizing for their bad work, they wanted to distinguish themselves as journalists from the “blogger” or “activist” who had posted the edited video clip in the first place. O’Reilly promised his viewers that they could still come to him for good journalism even as he had gotten the story wrong.

Beyond the momentary obsession that the media enjoyed at Sherrod’s expense—the obsession itself being a problem missed by the journalists themselves—this case allows us to glimpse how journalism changed so much in the first decade of the twenty-first century. The case put journalists in the position of distinguishing themselves from bloggers when both had engaged in bad judgment. Hence Bill O’Reilly’s statement that his viewers could come to him for good reporting (rather than have to rely on bloggers) in spite of the fact that he had just engaged in bad journalism and may have done Sherrod another injustice even in his apology. To be sure, the blogger had erred in posting such an edited video clip without providing the context.  However, given the opining of many mainstream journalists who work for media companies and the actual news provided on blogs, the line between “journalist” and blogger are blurred.  Hence the journalists working for media companies were sure to distance themselves from the blogger, who they said was not a real journalist, even though they had all made the same mistake. Were there a clear distinction to be made between the journalists and the bloggers, the former would have done better work—but they didn’t.

Back in 1984 when Daniel Schorr was working at CNN, he objected to the network’s plan to couple him with John Connally, who had been the Governor of Texas and a Secretary of the Treasury, to cover the Republican Convention. It was improper, Mr. Schorr said, to mix a politician with a journalist. In 2010, journalists were saying that it was improper to mix a journalist with a blogger. By then, many television journalists were giving opinions, and were thus closer being politicians, while many bloggers were providing news even before the networks. Lest the journalists point to their educational credentials from schools of journalism, how many American journalists in the nineteenth or even the twentieth century majored in journalism?  Is learning on the job at a newspaper so much different than the entrepreneurs who free lance at their own blogs to provide news?  If these are so different, why didn’t the “journalists” in the Sherrod case catch rather than perpetuate the blogger’s mistake? The proof is in the pudding.

The fact is that many bloggers are able to provide news because a person does not have to study journalism to have access to some information that is new. As a blogger myself, I have not found myself in this position—hence I confine myself to providing analysis based on my years of formal education and on the news provided by others—bloggers or “journalists.”  I must admit that I am more apt to trust the news from a company simply because there are institutional requirements for verifying stories, though as the Sherrod case shows, a media company’s procedures are not always sufficient. The difference between a news company and a blogger is perhaps in the checking or verification function, rather than so much in the getting of news (though the companies have more resources).  Even so, news can come from a variety of sources—not just from people who have a BA in journalism.  As a consequence, there is more of a need for verification—precisely because there are so many blogger/entrepreneurs operating. To dismiss them by saying they are not really journalists is an over-reaction and ill-founded. However, to insist on due diligence and verification on any report is even more pressing. Perhaps rather than have their journalists invoke artificial diremptions, news organizations could hire or contract per piece with many of the bloggers who are providing news so the latter could have access to the organizational wherewithal to verify stories.  These bloggers would then have the advantages of being entrepreneurs and of having the wherewithal to do due diligence.

Daniel Schorr, a protégé of Edward R. Murrow at CBS News and an aggressive reporter who got into conflict with censors, the Nixon administration and network superiors would likely see the advantages that bloggers have in terms of freedom, while being worried (as I am as well) concerning the due diligence limitations faced by the entrepreneurs. He got his first scoop, which earned him $5, when he was 12. A woman fell or jumped from the roof of the apartment house where he lived, and he called the police, interviewed them about the victim and then called The Bronx Home News, which paid for news tips.  Had there been an internet, he likely would have been a blogger. Would that have made a difference?

While good to a point, a profession’s gate-keeping can be readily subverted into simply keeping people out who are otherwise doing good work. In spite of the Sherrod blogger, other bloggers have been providing news—otherwise, the media companies would not be citing them as sources. Rather than fighting the bloggers, the “journalists” who got the Sherrod story wrong might offer a hand; they might just find that they will be helped in return. News is like water in a stream—there are many feeder streams.  Moreover, the nature of news is freedom,which is inherently broad rather than circumscribed.  This is particularly so in a high-tech world where the internet has had a democratizing effect in expanding the sources of news and analysis.  In this context, we might be wise to remember Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson concerning the need for an educated electorate rather than try to monopolize information-getting to those in the club.

Source on Schoor: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/24/business/media/24schorr.html?_r=1&hp
Source on Sherrod: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/22/us/politics/22sherrod.html?scp=1&sq=sherrod&st=cse