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Bill Moyers and the Emergence of U.S. Citizen Journalism
Power of government creates need for investigative news
Ronda Hauben (netizen2)     Print Article 
Published 2007-05-07 17:06 (KST)   
Bill Moyers is a highly respected professional journalist, an American journalist who stands out as one who is willing to speak truth to power, even at the risk of losing his job. Moyers has been a journalist since he was 15 years old, and yet he considers himself a citizen journalist. After an absence of more than two years, Moyers returned to PBS (public broadcasting system) on Friday, April 27 with the return of his show the "Bill Moyers Journal." (1)

This initial Friday night program provides a helpful framework to use in looking at the nature of citizen journalism and considering what are the essential factors needed for citizen journalism to develop in the U.S.

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Often citizen journalism has been referred to as a journalism of "amateurs" as opposed to "professionals," as two prominent Columbia Journalism School professionals Samuel Freedman (2) and Nicholas Leeman (3) have argued, or as a journalism of those "who lack training as journalists" in contrast to those who are "trained journalists," as a recent article in LinuxInsider proposes. (4)

The origin and development of citizen journalism presents the basis for a very different model, however. The basis is for a collaboration of journalists as a Fourth Estate, and of citizens who are concerned with overseeing what government does so as to monitor the use and abuse of power.

The concept of citizen journalism was first popularized by the Korean online newspaper OhmyNews. When OhmyNews was started in February 2000, it was with the goal of transforming the conservative domination of the media landscape in South Korea. Oh Yeon-ho, the founder and CEO of OhmyNews, had worked as a journalist for the progressive publication "Mal" for the previous decade. His experience taught him that even when he wrote a significant story, it received little attention. When one of the conservative newspapers in South Korea covered a comparable story, however, other conservative news media provided coverage, so the story received serious attention. In starting OhmyNews, Oh was determined to bring about a change in the media environment in South Korea so that "'the quality of news determined whether it won or lost,' not the power and prestige of the media organization that printed the article." (5)

The creation of OhmyNews originally took the form of a media organization with a small staff of reporters and editors who focused on covering a carefully chosen but limited set of stories. With the concept "every citizen is a reporter," however, readers were invited to submit articles, many of which were included as part of the OhmyNews publication. The writers whose articles appeared in OhmyNews were paid a small fee. Since then OhmyNews has grown substantially. The question is raised whether there is any similar development growing up in the U.S. In order to answer the question, it is important to determine the necessary characteristics for a media to be called "citizen journalism."

On the first regular episode of the Bill Moyers Journal, Moyers invited Jon Stewart and Josh Marshall as his guests. Stewart insists he isn't a journalist though Moyers differs. Stewart's program "The Daily Show" which appears on cable television, is considered by many of his devoted fans to be closer to what is "news" than the majority of programs which call themselves news or news media. Stewart, however, describes his show as close to "an editorial cartoon."

On his initial Friday evening show, Moyers played some clips from a recent Daily Show. One clip was an extract from the testimony presented to the U.S. congress by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The clip showed Gonzales claiming "I can't recall" in many different instances in response to nearly all the questions he was asked by the congress. Stewart comments that at first he didn't understand what the significance was of Gonzales' response. Eventually, however, he began to think he had figured out what it represented. Describing the motives of those in the Bush administration, he says: (6)

"They would rather us believe them to be wildly incompetent and inarticulate than to let us know anything about how they operate. And so, they do constitutionally-mandated things most of the time, but they don't -- they fulfill the letter of their obligation to checks and balances, but not the intent."

Stewart is commenting on why Gonzales' testimony on April 19, 2007 to the U.S. congress did not explain anything about how the decision had been made in the situation that was the subject of the hearing. Eight U.S. attorneys appointed by the justice department which Gonzales heads were fired. These attorneys were from different regions of the U.S. and so at first the pattern of justice department activity was not obvious to congress which is charged with overseeing the activity of the justice department.

Stewart comments that Gonzales was willing "to look like a pinhead" rather than provide the needed information for congress to carry out its oversight functions over the justice department. Elaborating on the importance of such oversight functions, Stewart explains (7):

"The election moment is merely the American public saying, 'We'd rather you be president than that guy.' That's it. The next four years, though, you still have to abide by the oversight process that is there to prevent this kind of bizarre sort of cult-like atmosphere that falls along. I mean, I accept that kind of veil of secrecy around Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, but I don't accept that around our government."

Another guest on Bill Moyer's show was Joshua Micah Marshall, the head of TPM Media, an online media company which is located in the flower district of New York City. TPM Media employs several full time reporter bloggers who work with Marshall. It publishes TalkingPointsMemo.com and TPMmuckraker.com The description of TPMmuckraker explains that "TPMmuckraker.com is a news blog dedicated to chronicling, explaining and reporting on public corruption, political scandal and abuses of the public trust of all sorts." A more elaborate description on the Web site says (8):

"As the site's name implies, it is inspired by the early 20th century tradition of journalistic muckraking and built on the technologies of the early 21st. Our aim is to produce journalism that is pugnacious, lively, independent, meticulously factual and fun."

The mechanism of funding is listed as "paid advertising and contributions from readers."

TCMmuckraker.com first broke the story of the firing of the eight U.S. attorneys by the justice department. The U.S. congress is currently investigating the circumstances of these activities. Several of the attorneys who were fired were conducting criminal investigations of government officials in which the Republican Party took an interest.

Marshall's publication successfully utilized the Internet to piece together the activities within the department of justice, which were not obvious to outsiders.

In December 2006, Marshall posted a link about the firing of a U.S. attorney in Arkansas from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. An article in The Los Angeles Times explains what happened: (9)

"Marshall later followed up, adding that several U.S. attorneys were apparently being replaced and asked his 100,000 or so daily readers to write in if they knew anything about U.S. attorneys being fired in their areas. For the two months that followed, Talking Points Memo and one of its sister sites, TPM Muckraker, accumulated evidence from around the country on who the axed prosecutors were, and why politics might be behind the firings. The cause was taken up among Democrats, Atty. Gen. Alberto R. Gonzales is now in the media crosshairs."

The participation of readers in making it possible for the details of the maneuvers of the justice department to be uncovered is a demonstration of the power of citizen participation in a developing news story, a power that the Internet makes possible.

Commenting on the potential demonstrated by such exposures, one reader writes:(10)

"I think that the Internet has/is doing to journalism what it has done to nearly everything else it touches. It 'communitizes' it. That means the break down between the roles of the journalist and the reader as each starts to take on responsibilities of the other."

The ability of the reader to participate in the development of an important story either as a journalist, by discussing the issues involved, or by providing tips to the journalist writing the story, are all important contributions. Similarly, the ability of the journalist, whether trained as a journalist or not, to take up the stories that need to be covered in order to monitor the activities of government, to give such stories the proper attention and to work with other citizens to develop and to spread the stories so that they get adequate coverage and attention, are all important contributions to what I am proposing are essential aspects of citizen journalism.

As a top notch professional journalist who is also a citizen journalist Moyers offers his critique of the failure of much of what presents itself as journalism in America. Though there is, he explains, "some world-class journalism being done in our country by journalists committed to getting as close as possible to the verifiable truth," this is not, Moyers proposes, the dominant character of the U.S. media. "The news business is at war with journalism," says Moyers. Private interests of unaccountable executives and investors have come to dominate how Americans get their news, he maintains. Yet Moyers is optimistic. "What encourages me is the Internet," he explains. (11)

As the exposure of the firing of the U.S. attorneys scandal continues to evolve in the U.S., it is likely to take a collaborative effort of readers and journalists continuing with the investigation and publication of the details of the story to put pressure on the U.S. Congress to continue its investigation. This is an activity for citizens doing the work of journalists, and the work of journalists acting as citizens. Such a development marks the emergence in the U.S. of a form of journalism which is independent of the political and commercial interests, a journalism that is critical of what those in power are doing.

Given the unbridled power of government officials in the U.S. there is particularly a need for a journalism which will report the news and expose the underlying but hidden motives and interests behind the news. Too often journalists tell the story that those in power want to be told. Too often these journalists act as if they are the public relations department for the powerful. Rarely do journalists in the U.S. tell the news from the point of view of those who are the victims of the abuse of power by those in public office.

Commenting on the important role for such a new media that is not corporate dominated and owned, but that is able to fufill the role of citizen journalism, Linda Milazzo writes, "New Media voices ... won't permit another president to disregard the will of the people as the "Old Press" wantonly do, a new press will have free unencumbered voices, much of which arise from the Internet."(12)

Writing in 1994, Michael Hauben, co-author of the book Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet proposed that the Net brings the power of the reporter to the netizen, to the user of the net.(13) The collaboration of the citizen and the journalist to create a socially responsible but powerful form of journalism that will be capable of monitoring government activities may just now be emerging in the U.S.

(1) Bill Moyers Journal, April 27, 2007 http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/04272007/transcript4.html

(2) Citizen Journalists and the New 'News.' A response to Samuel Freedman's column on CBS TV's 'Public Eye'

(3)"Cit-J and its Place in Journalism." A reply to Nicholas Lemann's New Yorker article

(4) Katherine Noyes, "Journalism 2.0: Power to the People,
Linux Insider" http://www.linuxinsider.com/story/must-read/57193.html

(5)Ronda Hauben, "OhmyNews and 21st Century Journalism," OhmyNews, September 9, 2005

(6) Bill Moyers talks with Jon Stewart, April 27, 2007

(7) Bill Moyers talks with Jon Stewart, April 27, 2007

(8)The urls are: http://www.talkingpointsmemo.org and http://tpmmuckraker.com

(9) Terry McDermott, "Blogs can top the presses: Talking Points Memo drove the U.S. attorrneys story, proof that Web writers with input from devoted readers can reshape journalism," Los Angeles Times, March 17, 2007

(10) Posted by: Alex (D - No) | April 30, 2007 01:36 AM The Moyers Blog "Open Source Journalism"

(11)Interview with Bill Moyers "on journalism and democracy," The Christian Century, April 17, 2007 http://www.christiancentury.org/article.lasso?id=3196

May 5, 2007 at 19:15:11 Opednews.com

(13) Michael Hauben, "The Net and the Netizens," in Netizens: On the History and Impact of Usenet and the Internet http://www.columbia.edu/~rh120/ch106.x01
©2007 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Ronda Hauben

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