Sunday, June 15, 2008

Groundless Opinions and the People Who Make Them

This morning, NPR had this brief little story about Mayhill Fowler, a blogger for the Huffington Post, who recorded Barack Obama's speech about "bitter" white Americans clinging to their guns, and who also recorded a monologue by Bill Clinton in South Dakota responding to the critical article about him in Vanity Fair. In both of these situations, Fowler was able to get access to a politician that would not have been given to a journalist by not disclosing her intentions to record, quote, and publish their comments. Obama's fundraiser was closed to the press; Clinton met Fowler on the rope line after a rally, and it was not at all clear whether or not he understood that he was being recorded.

The Huffington Post calls its contributors "citizen reporters," and invites its readers to join by submitting their own stories. It also calls itself an "Internet Newspaper." Obviously, these labels are (trying to be) signs of the times - an all electronic publication garnering enough respect and journalistic integrity to be able to call itself a "newspaper" and its contributors "reporters." There's only one little thing missing: journalistic integrity.

This, I believe, has been a growing problem in American media, one that I guess started with the inception of Fox News. Now, I don't lament the vertigo-inducing fall of newspaper circulation or readership in the United States. I have about as much sympathy for the plights of The Wall Street Journal or The New York Times as I do Ford or GM. But what these papers realize is that it's not just the printing press that makes them newspapers. It's that they adhere to certain standards of objectivity, transparency, and accountability that makes them reliable news sources. Their reporters have to cite their sources, present the facts, refrain from presenting their own opinions without warning the reader, and be held accountable when they make mistakes.

Mayhill Fowler is not held to any of these standards. And I'm not saying that she should be. But until she is, she shouldn't be labeled a "reporter." Indeed, the entire concept of a "citizen reporter" is contradictory. A reporter is precisely NOT a citizen. The duties of being a reporter require him to suspend his duties of being a citizen, such as having or expressing a (political) opinion, or favoring those near and dear to him. In addition, being a reporter requires qualifications and credentials. To say that someone could be a "citizen reporter" is as absurd as saying that someone could be a "citizen surgeon," (just pick up a scalpel and start cutting!) a "citizen constitutional lawyer," (you can teach yourself the law! How many precedents for this case could there be, anyways?) or even "citizen biology teacher." (This week's assignment: Leviticus 11:13, where we learn that bats are a kind of unclean bird!) ("This is why you need to read more Hume," said R.A.)

This, however, is part of the necessary battle we're going to have to fight in this new age of the internet, when any jerk with a computer can have instant access to an international audience, like the tallest, cheapest, loudest soap-box ever made. We can't - and neither should we want to - stop people like Mayhill Fowler (I keep wanting to write her name "Mayhill Flower." She should consider the change.) from writing. But we should be aware enough to be able to distinguish a reporter from a blogger, even when that blogger is going around calling himself a "citizen reporter." The best way I can think of doing this is to never get one's news from the blogs. Read the Times or the Herald Tribune, watch PBS or even NBC or even even CNN first, to get the actual information, and then go to the blogs to be told how you feel about them. For even as much as bloggers abhor the MainStreamMedia for being too conservative/liberal/corporate/Satanic/anti-American/pro-rutabaga, the fact is that that Media still has to uphold certain standards that do not (yet) apply to "internet newspapers" like the Huffington Post.

Except for Fox. The only reason for anyone ever to watch Fox news is for when it's 2 am, you've got a case left in the fridge, and you've run out of drinking games to play.


Rick said...

One should also be careful, and critical of what is printed in mainstream publications. Even that journalism is usually not objective reporting.

jim v said...

Way to go you citizen reporter you. You have asked the real question that is ... Why would anyone want to watch Fox News sober?