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Cit-J and Its Place in Journalism
A reply to Nicholas Lemann's New Yorker article
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2006-08-22 16:58 (KST)   
In his recent article, "Journalism Without Journalists," published in The New Yorker on Aug 7, Nicholas Lemann challenges the promise and practice of citizen journalism. (1)

Lemann is on the staff of The New Yorker, a magazine that publishes important investigative journalism. He is also the Dean of the Columbia University Journalism School, one of the most prominent schools of journalism in the United States. Given these credentials one might expect that an article by Lemann in the The New Yorker would offer a serious examination of the new phenomenon of citizen journalism, and a consideration of the role it can play in the media.

Unfortunately Lemann does not set out to do either of these two pieces of much needed work. Instead he offers an argument against citizen journalism very similar to the one advanced by Samuel Freedman, also at the Columbia University Journalism School, in an article published on CBS's Public Eye in March. (2)

At the root of Lemann's article is the argument that citizen journalism makes grandiose promises but only delivers trivial fare.

"Professional journalists," (or those who earn their income doing journalism) according to Lemann, are intimidated by the supporters of citizen journalism and so do not adequately defend the achievements of their profession.

It is these "professionals," however, he writes, who carry out the duties required of journalists.

Hence according to Lemann's portrayal of the world, all that is needed is an adequate defense of the deeds of journalists who are paid for their work, rather than trying to substitute "amateurs" who earn their living elsewhere.

What Lemann writes is a defense of salaried journalists. His case against citizen journalists is that the articles they write are of the variety that belong in a "church or a community newsletter," and therefore not an innovation.

The problem with Lemann's presentation of journalism in 21st-century America, is that he is substituting the protection of the profession of journalism, for the social purpose that is at the roots of why journalism is so important for a society.

This point was sharply enunciated in a program held in April 2006 at Columbia University. (3) One of the panelists, the journalist Charles Glass, described the difficulties he has faced trying to do journalism in the U.S. His complaint was that American journalism has become hostage to a "business culture." He argued that for journalists in the U.S., "Our moral obligation to tell the truth is too often over-ridden by the commercial concerns to do what the employer wants."

Describing the destruction of journalism in the U.S. by the business culture it is embedded in, Glass said his experience had taught him that the business culture couldn't be adapted to promote the truth. The business model is the wrong model for journalism, he explained. This is because the goal of journalism isn't to reach consumers or customers. The goal of the journalist is to speak to citizens.

Other panelists in the program at Columbia were Seymour Hersh, John Pilger and Robert Fisk. This set of prominent journalists explained that the problem they observed in the U.S. political environment was that there has been a breakdown of many institutions and of the journalistic oversight of these institutions.

Instead of the U.S. press providing oversight and questions to the powerful in the U.S., too often the press acts as official spokesperson or as the disseminator of the government's positions on issues.

Lemann's defense of journalism is actually the defense of what Glass referred to as the "business culture" which is destroying the ability of journalism to serve a public purpose. The polity in the U.S. is sick. The mechanism for rooting out the sickness is to dig out and expose the problems of the society that are hidden from public view. But such exposures are rarely made, and when they are submitted to editors, they may not be published. Glass cited a number of stories he wrote that were never printed or aired on television.

Similarly, Fisk described how the words used by U.S. journalists mask the abuse of power. He also demonstrated how very often news articles in the U.S. press rely on government information as their sources and hence end up presenting as news the official version of the events, instead of uncovering what is going on beneath the surface, what is actually at stake, and for whom.

In the article I wrote in response to Freedman's article about citizen journalism, I described how auto workers who are interviewed by the press about the cutbacks and layoffs by the auto parts company Delphi, do not see any reference to what they told the reporters when the articles appear. (4) This is only one of a number of examples where the point of the view of the powerful is presented to the public as the only point of view in mainstream journalism in the United States.

In the current media environment, there is little investigative journalism being carried out by mainstream media organizations, and few resources are available for those journalists who work for the mainstream press to delve beneath the surface of current events to dig out the truth.

For example, there are various government investigations ongoing into the bookkeeping practices of Delphi and its former parent company General Motors. Yet instead of investigating what is actually going on with these corporate entities and their management practices, many of the reporters covering stories related to GM or Delphi just echo corporate claims that the problem the companies are facing is that their workforce is too highly paid, or that its pensions and health care insurance are too heavy a burden for the U.S. auto industry.

There are any number of other events in the U.S. that cry out for journalists to delve beneath the surface. The outing of Valerie Plame's identity as an undercover CIA agent, in retaliation for her husband's activities in exposing false claims made by the administration, is but another glaring example of a story that has not received the attention it deserves from the U.S. press.

The crimes of the Nixon White House were unmasked because there were investigative journalists who were able to devote time and resources to digging out what was being hidden. (5) No such newspaper investigation has been conducted in the cases involving the Bush White House.

Lemann recognizes that OhmyNews is "perhaps the biggest citizen-journalism site" and that it is based in Seoul, Korea. He gives no indication, however, of familiarity with the important achievements of OhmyNews. "What has citizen journalism actually brought us?", he asks disparagingly, ignoring the fact that OhmyNews and citizen reporters publishing in OhmyNews helped to elect an unknown politician to the presidency of South Korea.

Nor does he seem to know that a citizen reporter posting on OhmyNews to honor two middle school girls killed by an armored tank driven by two U.S. soldiers, helped to ignite large candlelight demonstrations against the problem of the unequal U.S.-Korean relationship.

There are other significant examples of achievements by citizen reporters which Lemann could learn about if he were interested. Then he would be in a position to make an informed assessment of the potential and achievements of citizen journalism.

Instead, his case against citizen journalism rests on three arbitrary examples of articles taken from three different sites on a particular day in June. The selection mechanism used to choose the sample articles appears to be his effort to claim that citizen journalism is equivalent to what would in other times have appeared in a "church or community newsletter."

Lemann doesn't provide the reader of his article in The New Yorker with any means to understand the origins of citizen journalism, as in the context of the creation of the Korean edition of OhmyNews, or the media reform movement called the Anti-Chosun [Daily] Movement that it was part of.

He does offer the reader a foray into the vibrant publishing environment in Great Britain in the late 17th century. The actual book he refers to, Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain by Mark Knights, provides a lively discussion of how representative politics was built on extensive public participation.

While the book offers an interesting exploration of the interconnection between political participation and political representation, Lemann's interest in it seems more connected to the description it provides of a period when partisan politics became dominant. This seems related to Lemann's prediction that such an outcome is likely to be the result among those writing on the Internet as well.

While Lemann's article provides little perspective or insight into the citizen journalism phenomena, it does provide an example of why citizen journalism is needed. The Internet has brought changes in our society, and institutions. Whether the new forms and content available for journalism, some of which are being explored under the rubric of "citizen journalism," will bring improvements to journalism is yet to be determined. It is, at the least, premature, for Lemann to pronounce the failure of "citizen journalism," especially when he has made so little effort to learn about its nature and origin. But more profoundly, his article, published in the The New Yorker, and by someone of the stature of Dean Lemann, demonstrates that there are serious deficiencies in how change is considered and investigated.

Fortunately, the Internet and the advent of citizen journalism means that other viewpoints and examinations of the phenomena of citizen journalism will be produced and discussed. (6)
(1) Nicholas Lemann, "Journalism without journalists", The New Yorker, Aug 7, 2006
(2) "Outside Voices: Samuel Freedman On The Difference Between The Amateur And The Pro", CBS Public Eye, March 31, 2006
(3) Ronda Hauben, "Business Wrong Model for Journalism, Goal of journalism should be to speak to citizens", OhmyNews, April 17, 2006
(4) Ronda Hauben, "Citizen Journalists and the New 'News', A response to Samuel Freedman's column on CBS TV's 'Public Eye'", OhmyNews, April 4, 2006
(5) Ronda Hauben, "Citizen Journalism and Lessons from Watergate: The role of investigative reporting in unraveling scandal", OhmyNews, June 20, 2006
(6) "Newspapers And Reporters And.Citizen Journalists? Oh My!" - Public Eye
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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