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August 10, 2007

The true value of journalism

John Stoehr

This is from Mike Boehm, the hard-boiled (meant with ironic affection) arts reporter at the LA Times. He comments on Flyover regularly. What he has to say matters. Like Gary Panetta's comment today, this comment is too good and too relevant to be lost in the comments section. Mike B. was inspired to write to us by one of our Hinterland Diary entries on Molly Ivins.

Ivins expressed her wish that all bloggers -- or "opinion-mongers," as she calls them -- were required to spend time as beat reporters. That way, she said, they'd have more understanding of the difficulty of gathering facts and writing about the truth. Per the usual, however, Mike touches on an array of topics, mostly the true value of committed, impartial and ethical journalism. Thanks, Mike. -- J.S.


God, I wish all the bloggers who think they can generate the news as well as comment on it were forced to spend a month interning as cub reporters. See what it's like to cover a cop shop or a courthouse, folks, and smell a news story in the flood of daily crime reports, lawsuits and indictments. Or try to get at the facts of an environmental rape being covered up under reams of verbiage in a developer's bogus environmental impact report.

Just because you can punch up the info in a few keystrokes on your computer doesn't mean the info itself was easy to come by, or to shape into clear and coherent form, complete with context that makes its significance intelligible. It takes skill, commitment, experience and a passion for the democratic process to be a good reporter.

It can't be done properly from the sidelines, when your day job permits, and, I.F. Stone notwithstanding, it is very rarely done without the support of a well-funded corporation or institution.

Molly Ivins, rest her soul, surely knew that; there wasn't anybody more independent and feisty, yet she was not, to my knowledge, a freelance journalist.

Yes, the corporations and institutions devoted to the news are in a panic, er, a period of transition, so it has become fashionable to declare them easily replaceable on the cusp of a great new era of cheap and easy information.

New technologies may make it easier to extract oil or precious metals, but to say that they alone permit the extraction of facts against the wishes of those who have an interest in hiding facts is to take a naive leap of faith.

A society that's naive about the capital and personal commitments required to mine pertinent facts (I'm deliberately not saying "truths," because pertinent facts are hard enough to come by) will get the kind of information and the kind of governance it deserves.

The end of the press as an Estate standing apart from the other powers that be will make the other powers more powerful and immune to public opinion (and yes, I'm aware that all too many news outlets fail miserably to maintain the independence and skepticism toward power that our system presumes as the press's role, but many good ones are still up to the task).

Can you imagine a blogger trying to report on a car company, or a drug company, or a corrupt sheriff, or the iffy business practices of a major arts philanthropist, without the backup of libel lawyers and a corporate budget to pay them?

Can you imagine what would have become of Woodward and Bernstein's newsgathering if they'd been independent freelance reporters and the Nixon administration had the DC police trump up some penny-ante trespassing or drunk-driving charges against them?

Maybe the future lies in large new newsgathering institutions based on the Web -- newspapers by other means -- but I certainly hope it doesn't lie in some fanciful utopian free-for-all of passionate amateurs whom the powerful will be able to swat away at will.

The bottom line issue is: How much is information worth, and will the public ante up what it takes to supply the local/national/international/cultural information needs of a robust democracy?


Posted by John Stoehr at August 10, 2007 12:02 PM

COMMENTS

Does anyone else find it ironic that we're conducting a discussion of the trustworthiness of blogs by means of a blog? If I'm to believe some of the statements I see here, I shouldn't believe the statements I see here.

It's also ironic that I find myself playing the role of devil's advocate/apologist for blogs, since I very seldom look at blogs for the kind of journalism -- or even the kind of topics -- that I would expect to find in a newspaper. About the only significant exception was during the early war period, when I believe I learned more about the situation in Afghanistan and Iraq through firsthand blogs than through the mainstream US media.

Personally, I suspect that the reports of the death of the Press are exaggerated, but I certainly share Mike Boehm's concerns. I would suggest that "How much is information worth?" is not the only question. We need to also ask, "How will we know?" Trust is central. Without claiming these questions have been resolved by any means, I note that many people buy freely from web sites and ebay who wouldn't have dreamed of it five or ten years ago.

Posted by: Steve Durbin at August 10, 2007 4:10 PM

Dear Steve,
You've noted this a couple of times, so I wanted to let you know we're listening. You're right, it is ironic. Or it would be if we were talking about all bloggers. But we're not.

Many bloggers, for instance Terry Teachout and Alex Ross, are as good at what they do as anyone who works in conventional newspapers. There are others, as Teachout has pointed out numerous times, who are not part of the media machine, but who nevertheless offer insight and careful commentary on music, visual arts, fiction, etc.

The bloggers Ivins had in mind, and I would guess that Mike Boehm takes issue with, are the armchair journalists who opine from their keyboards but don't do, and wouldn't know how to do, the work of shoe-leather journalism.

I presume Molly and Mike don't mind a little pontification from bloggers since people have been shouting into the void in the letters-to-the-editor pages and the op-ed pages of newspapers for a long time. That's what Americans do really well. They let you know what they're thinking.

The concern, which I share with Molly and Mike, is the apparent movement -- or least abundant yammering right now, hopefully faddish -- regarding bloggers, and other "citizen journalists," ushering in some kind of new era of journalism, especially political journalism.

But voicing an opinion based in facts gathered by reporters on the street does not a journalist make.

I agree with you that analysis, commentary, observation and insight are valuable and I applaude and encourage each. If more people take offer intelligent commentary on the communities they live in, more power to them.

But writing an opinion is different from reporting the facts. And as Ivins noted, opinion writing should be approached with the same schemata (though I'm sure she wouldn't go anywhere near that word) used by the reporter covering a seven-car pile-up on the highway -- balanced perspectives, established credibility, accuracy, fairness, piercing the veil if need be, being able to impartially see if a veil exists in the first place that might need piercing, etc.

Writing opinion is about providing clarity, synthesis and, in a hippie-dippy sort of way, about extracting a clear sense of meaning from the ambiguities of reality for the benefit of others, not oneself.

Molly Ivins always gave voice to the issues most important to those who had no voice. That's what made her special. That's what separates her from the Blogger Legion.

That said, this report suggests that blogging may be a fast fading trend, as least among the quick-hit opinion-mongers, as Molly might say.

Time will tell.

With sincerity and respect,
J

Posted by: John Stoehr at August 10, 2007 5:05 PM

The sentence that really leaps out here for me is this one: "(Journalism) can't be done properly from the sidelines, when your day job permits....it is very rarely done without the support of a well-funded corporation or institution."

Good journalism requires an institutional framework. I think we're all haunted by the fear that this framework is weakening significantly or may even disappear.

Posted by: Gary Panetta at August 11, 2007 11:38 AM

John, thanks for the thoughtful response. Perhaps I was being defensive, but I had the impression that bloggers were being tarred as a group, as in "Ivins expressed her wish that all bloggers..." Certainly those using blogs as personal diaries -- whether or not they switch to twittering as per the cited report -- have no desire nor expectation of being part of anything that would be called news or journalism. The fact they also write on blogs is hardly more descriptive of what they do than saying, perhaps a century ago, they also write with pencils. Blogs are writing instruments that can be used in very diverse ways, and bloggers do.

Gary Panetta puts it well about good journalism needing an institutional framework. Consistency is important to the development of trust, and having deep resources can help with that (though it's not the only way). Not that an institution guarantees good journalism: think former Wall Street Journal. On the other hand, the power of bloggers is the possibility of firsthand immediacy, expert knowledge, or pure passion on a topic. A given pro journalist will have that only by chance. We should take advantage of the complementarity here; I suspect some sort of amalgam building on the strengths of both will serve us best.

Posted by: Steve Durbin at August 12, 2007 8:20 PM

Molly Ivins would have written a fantastic blog, if she had wanted to. A few times the irony of discussing the trustworthiness of a blog on a blog has been pointed out, but the major difference is that this is a blog run by trained journalists who do think before they type, write based on the facts, etc. I do surf around to blogs to "see what people are saying," about some of the subjects I'm writing about on mine, and there is a world of difference usually in tone and content. As a journalist, I love to blog as a tool for disseminating additional information about stories I am writing, giving background to stories, updating developing stories, or opining a bit, in bounds. Though some stuff I blog on wouldn't get in the paper due to our ever shrinking news hole, the understanding with my editors is don't say anything on your blog you wouldn't say in the paper.

That does bring up a subject I wonder if you guys might address on Flyover: For journalists who do blog, what kind of ground rules and expectations have publications given them, and how have they worked blogging into their work schedules?

Posted by: Rich Copley at August 13, 2007 5:16 AM

"The fact they also write on blogs is hardly more descriptive of what they do than saying, perhaps a century ago, they also write with pencils. Blogs are writing instruments that can be used in very diverse ways, and bloggers do."

This comment really stuck out to me for a lot of reasons.

I write on three different blogs and each of the three of them has vastly different purposes. In addition to this blog, I write one that is almost purely commercial in nature. Its intent is to market the content of the site that it is associated with. The other blog is about theater, but I cringe whenever anyone says that I publish reviews there and I have a disclaimer on the top of it that it isn't associated with my work at the Lansing State Journal. I consider it a personal blog, even though I share very few personal life details. It's a place where I talk about theater happenings in my local community in a very informal fashion. It's there that I can talk about the artistic pursuits of my family--something I don't ever do in print.

That said, even in the "personal" blog I'm constantly cognizant that what I write there says something about me and that I am writing in public. Do I hold myself to as high of standards as I do when I'm writing for the newspaper? No. Do I still try to maintain a level of professionalism and avoid rumor-mongering? Absolutely.

But back to the first thought: Blogs are simply a medium. It will deliver a wide variety of content and I don't think we'll be successful in trying to enforce a single code of conduct or set of guidelines on them.

Posted by: Bridgette Redman at August 14, 2007 8:27 AM



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