Blogging, journalism and the beleaguered State: Is it time to end the neurosis?

I had intended writing another instalment on the ongoing crisis within journalism, but time’s short for original thought these days, especially when there are folk like Jay Rosen (et al) to do the thinking for you. Here’s the Guardian’s excellent précis of his presentation to SXSW. It’s refreshing to say the least:

Mainstream journalists’ antagonism towards bloggers, he suggested, was sustained by the huge stress they find themselves under, which stems from five developments:

1. The collapsing economic model of newspapers.

2. Journalists having to face new kinds of competition.

3. A shift in power to the audience.

4. New patterns of information flow in which information moves horizontally from citizen to citizen as efficiently as vertically.

5. Erosion of trust and related loss of authority.

Sneering at bloggers was a way journalists avoided confronting these developments. In short “this is fucking neurotic.”

I was asked about this subject in an interview yesterday morning. The truth is that journalists and bloggers are made of same raw material, and they run from truth-ignoring gobshite to authoritative analysis. The rush to judgement whilst tiresome is flawed for this reason.

I suspect the same rush to generic judgement artificially depresses those progressively lowering figures of public trust in journalism as a whole. I further suspect that it is a ‘victim’ of the contention (not to mention by pass mechanism) offered by blogs and micro blogging platforms over the truth.

But there is another problem. Check out this excellent piece of extended journalism from Mother Jones on the apparent ‘capture’ of leading US academics by the Ghaddafi regime in Libya. Then read Philip Stephen’s excellent piece on how the UK’s (and Ireland’s) draconian libel laws freeze out such enterprising work in these islands:

The media has been muzzled. To dig deep into the dealings of peripatetic billionaires and foreign despots is to invite instant legal challenge. The law demands journalists provide absolute proof of dubious dealings.

That’s hard to find in the wild west of the former Soviet Union or the closed world of Middle Eastern autocrats. So, in spite of the occasional bouts of indignation, Britain shrugs its shoulders and gets on with the washing. Depressing really. Then again, it pays well.

Indeed. It’s worth adding Michael White’s postscript:

So while we hacks do not fear the knock at the door in a Turkish dawn, we should not feel too pleased with ourselves. And remember, dear reader, that we are also striving much of the time to tell you what you’d rather know rather than challenge your prejudices and make you cross.

As the old saying goes, we are all guilty.

Closer to home, we’ve seen the welcome arrival of a new online investigative journalism project, The Detail. Welcome because everywhere, not just Northern Ireland, the capacity (not to mention the appetite) for delivering tough minded journalism is fading in favour of the much-cheaper-to-produce opinion.

I wish them the very best of luck. And they should not allow themselves to be put off by the fact that some will not like what they do. As Rosen noted in his SXSW presentation:

“What’s really important is that people telling us about the world understand the importance of accuracy, verification, and transparency. Whether you voice your opinion is really a stylistic question.”

Any intelligent challenge of stupid, or compliant orthodoxy is welcome. Making it pay though, is going to be a long, complicated and difficult journey especially in an era when almost everything is questioned and/or held to be questionable. That’s something to which good journalism/blogging/whatever can and probably should address itself.

Onora O’Neill on the BBC’s analysis programme a few weeks ago:

If you can’t make the judgment, it doesn’t obviously follow that the rational thing is to mistrust. We have, as it were, a cultural assumption that suspicion is a better, more prudent attitude than credulity. That attitude itself suggests a failure to think about the costs of suspicion.

If you really have no evidence, then you’ve got to simply adopt a default assumption. Now I’m not arguing in favour of blanket credulity that would be extremely foolish – but I think blanket suspicion is very self-destructive.

This is where opinion only (often ‘styled’ as a montage of conflicting views masquerading as objectivity) journalism is driving us. Intense examination of the present, with little or no consideration of the past. Mark Edmundson in The Chronicle Review:

The news outlets sell one thing above all else, and that is not so much the news as it is newness. What one buys when one buys a daily paper, what one purchases when one purchases a magazine, is the hypothesis that what is going on right now is amazing, unprecedented, stunning. Or at least worthy of intense concentration.

What has happened in the past is of correspondingly less interest. In fact, it may be of barely any interest at all. Those who represented the claims of the past should never have imagined that the apostles of newness would give them a fair hearing, or a fair rendering, either.

To close, I’m going back to Rosen, who is still bemused by some journalists’ persistent (and downright stupid) characterisation of blogging outputs as “the spewings and rantings of very drunk people late at night”. But, according to Rosen, the real reason for such aggression is a combination of existential fear for the future and the sense that people are no longer listening:

There’s something about bloggers vs. journalists that permits the display of a preferred (or idealized) self among people in the press whose work lives have been disrupted by the Internet. There’s an attraction there. Spitting at bloggers is closely related to gazing at your own reflection, and falling in love with it all over again.

The internet genii cannot be put back in the box. But there are real deficits in the way society calls it’s institutions to account, and it is leading to a detachment and a default cynicism both about those institutions and conditioning behaviour negatively within them.

That nosedive cannot be arrested until the nature of the change we are all undergoing is better and more widely understood. That understanding will not in itself guarantee a solution (which will likely be multiple and various), but without it there is almost no hope of finding a way out of our current dilemmas.

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