The debate over news and new media is too often tribal. And though it may make for lively debate, tribalism impairs judgment. Yesterday, Jeff Bercovici blamed a 21-year-old stringer for the violent deaths of 24 people, including seven United Nations workers in riots in Afghanistan, after AFP published his account of a Koran-burning in Florida by Terry Jones, the unhinged pastor. The context, according to Bercovici: the report went against an informal media consensus to ignore Jones’s antics. This has been rebutted elsewhere, so I won’t go into detail on it. But there is a basic problem in arguing that journalism – communicating information about something that happened – is by definition a provocation, or that people looking to provoke, and people susceptible to provocation, won’t find some instrument to express themselves no matter what AFP does. In addition, old media is not a cartel; media outlets cannot collectively agree to “disappear” an event any more than investment banks can all agree buy stocks in order to make the market go up. And if they could, what standards are they supposed to use?
But there’s another issue here. This post – which took shots at Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis – was also reminiscent of Bill Keller’s attack on Arianna Huffington and the Huffington Post. As Bercovici’s subject was citizen journalism – or journalism outside the old media cartel and its values and standards – Keller’s subject was aggregation. The problem here is that “aggregation” wasn’t Arianna’s idea. It is a technological and economic feature of the web as it currently exists. It’s very easy to set up a website or an app and pull in content from many sources. This is a useful service. Sometimes this occurs illegally, and/or without permission, and the HuffPo has done some things with NYT content that the NYT doesn’t appreciate. But if that’s really the problem, a magazine column isn’t the place to deal with it.
By personalizing the issue, Keller trivialized it. Aggregation is a force that that legacy media must grapple with. (Indeed, the NYT does some aggregating of its own.) Markets, technology, clicks and eyeballs aren’t personal. Attacking individuals instead of acknowledging this reality is unserious. The problem here is oversimplifying and anthropomorphizing complex forces, putting a human face on uncontrollable trends the writer disdains. This a common feature of politics – which should tell you something. It’s a terrible way to do journalism. For journalists, anecdotes can carry great power, but in each of these instances the anecdote collapses under the weight of the subject it’s supposed to exemplify. The broader problem here is viewing new media from a position that is simultaneously both defensive and dismissive. That is not a good frame of mind to bring to bear on a rapidly emerging global economic and social phenomenon. The forces being unleashed by new media and social media are formidable. And for journalists, worthy of respect and a sincere effort to understand them. Even if they piss you off.