“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?”

Over at CBS’s Public Eye they’ve tapped Samuel Freedman for a piece in their “Outside Voices” section (full disclosure, yer anchoress guested over there last October, so I tend to like this feature!)

Freedman is a professor of journalism at Columbia University and a columnist on Education for The New York Times, and he is writing about the reality or illusion that is “citizen journalism,” as one may find it on the internet or elsewhere these days, and whether Big Time Professional Journalism is helped or hindered by the existance of people snapping photos with their telephones and uploading video onto the ‘net. Or, you know, tapping out their quaint little thoughts while wearing comfy slippers.

I frankly don’t know if I support the idea of “citizen journalism” as “legitimate” journalism. I think there is more to being a journalist than merely having a phone in the camera or knowing how to write a url code to link you to an article. I do not consider myself a “journalist,” by the way. I’m just a writer who is driven to write all the time.

That said, I think a real journalist is – or should be – first a writer or photographer who is in love with his craft. Add to that some tenacity, a determination to report the facts of a story rather than only those items suitable for framing and spinning, and a willingness to make even one’s heroes uncomfortable, now and then, if a story warrants it. There is that old chestnut, “a journalist is supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” (Gee, I wonder just how “afflicted” anyone name Clinton or Kennedy or Albright or Kerry has felt over the last few years.)

I’ve been ragging for a little while that perhaps journalism served us better back when a reporter was more gristle and whiskey than greasepaint and merlot, and I have not yet surrendered to the idea that a journalist need be someone with a degree in journalism. After all, look at all the “journalists” who only identified as such after they’d left the Clinton White House. Up to then, they’d been lawyers or political strategists, or ivy-league alums bearing degrees in art history. Suddenly, they’re all journalists! And I’m sure Mr. Freedman has no problem referring to them as such. too.

But I wonder if Mr. Freedman would look at the last 12 months work of, say, Ed Morrissey from Captain’s Quarters Blog and consider that his ethical, tenacious, accurate and provocative work – particularly regarding the corruption of the liberal Canadian government – was something less than journalism, simply because Ed is just a guy with a blog and not a “journalist.” I wonder if he would look at Brian Maloney’s (and Michelle Malkin’s) tireless work uncovering the sleazy financing ops at Air America (a story the NY Times never actually did cover) and say that this carefully researched, meticulously documented expose’ was something less than “real” reportage because – well, because Brian did not graduate from a J-school and his work was not featured in the correct forum.

And let’s talk about that forum, for a second. While kvetching about the internet and cable-tv, Freedman, to his credit, spends a little time acknowledging both the larger screw-ups of “legitimate journalism” (Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass, etc…he misses Eason Jordan being tire-necklaced), but he seems more concerned with what he calls “the devastating near-misses, the almost-correct articles or broadcasts undermined by a fatal error…” That would be Rathergate, Korangate, etc.

He doesn’t mention New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau’s strangely inaccurate take on the opinions of five FISA judges discussing the legality of the NSA wiretaps last week, but perhaps the deadlines crossed. What I found troublesome was Freedman’s assertion that Fox News – which is populated with such reputable professional journalists as Brit Hume and Chris Wallace (and some people of dubious repute, like Ellen Ratner and ummm…that girl with the pink fish lips…) may be equated with Air America Radio. You know, Air America – home of Randi Rhodes using firearms sound effects while discussing President Bush?

Regular readers of this blog know I am no fan of Fox News – I dislike it just as much as I dislike the rest of broadcast news, which is to say quite a little bit. But when a professor of journalism (and NY Times columnist) cannot discern a difference – quite a broad one – between Fox News and Air America, then I have to question his entire premise, which seems to be that professional, “trained” journalists are somehow better able to present accurate information with intelligent commentary. In equating the two, Freedman betrays a breathtaking willingness to lump together things which are quite different and call them all “cake.” And he seems all-too willing to de-legitimise a real, “trained journalist” like Hume, who has surely earned the title, simply because he doesn’t think much of where Hume works. It’s not the “right sort” of news outlet, and therefore it’s something other than what he and his contemporaries might call “real.”

Freedman writes:

Instead of providing the ultimate marketplace of ideas, however, cable TV and the Internet have become the ultimate amen corner, where nobody ever need encounter an opinion, much less a fact, that runs counter to what he or she already believes. To treat an amateur as equally credible as a professional, to congratulate the wannabe with the title “journalist,” is only to further erode the line between raw material and finished product. For those people who believe that editorial gate-keeping is a form of censorship, if not mind control, then I suppose the absence of any mediating intelligence is considered a good thing.

I don’t disagree with Freedman that blogs and talk-radio provide happy “Amen-corners” for folks who would rather insulate themselves from different viewpoints. I simply believe that Freedman and his ilk – the “professional, legitimate news outlets” are as insulated and amen-y as those they denigrate. If information comes their way that doesn’t fit the template of their world-view, (Ratzinger? An Enforcer Pope, 45,000 boxes of documents from Iraq? They’re ALL unimportant! Global Warming? It’s real, and President Bush has stubbornly ignored the issue and done nothing!) they don’t know what to do with it. Or, perhaps they do: downplay it until the next newscycle and hope no one remembers.

Freedman mentions the “gate-keepers” – the supposed shining-light of “legitimate” journalism – the “mediating intelligence” that separates “real” journalism from frummery and partisan hackery.

“Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?” It means, “who will guard the guards,” or “who will act as gatekeeper to the gatekeepers?”

I don’t suppose Freedman would take kindly to anyone suggesting that
, in a way, those pesky bloggers and talk radio people are – in some, clearly not all cases – the guardians of the guards, the gatekeepers narrowing their eyes at the gatekeepers and saying, “oh yeah? ‘Zat so? What’s your source? How come you left out this part of the transcript? Why should we believe all those “anonymous” comments and tips? Who are those “some” that Katie Couric keeps telling us “say” all those things?”

But the thing is, a legitimate gatekeeper – one seriously committed to his trusted charge, one dedicated to the service of the whole tribe – should be only to happy to know that – for his own protection – he too must know the password and be able to prove who he is.

Our gatekeepers in the press seem oddly offended by that idea.

And sadly, they are not at all impressed that technophobic little me has just typed in all of those long url codes, linking to interesting information and opinion that the “official gatekeepers” and “mediating intelligences” don’t believe the rest of us need to think about.

UPDATE: Rick Moran at Right Wing Nuthouse makes the case for the efficacy of editors and notes the occasional breakdown in sanity we see in the blogosphere. Emotionalism is plain bad fuel for the gatekeepers and their watchers, too.

UPDATE II: I imagine Mr. Freedman would call this another unfortunate near miss. There’s a sort-of correction, however. In the 17th paragraph.

Related: Delivering the news with a poisoned rag
Caveat Emptor

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