Sunday, May 24, 2009

Hey, Morley Safer: Bite Me

I've long been a fan of Morley Safer. But the veteran CBS newsman got up my Schnauzer fanny with his recent trashing of citizen journalism.

Safer, a longtime correspondent on 60 Minutes, started by voicing valid concerns about the decline of newspapers and what it could mean for our "right to know." But then he proceeded to diss various forms of "new media," including blogging:

“The blogosphere is no alternative, crammed as it is with the ravings and manipulations of every nut with a keyboard. Good journalism is structured and structure means responsibility,” he said. He added later, " . . . I would trust citizen journalism as much as I would trust citizen surgery.”

Safer proves he's good with a sound bite, as you might expect from a television guy. The line comparing citizen journalism to citizen surgery sounds sharp and insightful.

But if you get beyond the catchiness of Safer's statement, you realize that he is way off base.

Comparing journalism to surgery is ridiculous and points to Safer's arrogance. Surgery is a complex field that only a tiny percentage of people can master. Journalism ain't surgery. I know; I've got a degree in journalism, so it can't be all that hard.

A better comparison for journalism might be to "citizen construction." I have known people who earn their livings doing one thing, but also are capable of tackling impressive building projects.

My late father, for example, could build gorgeous grandfather clocks, probably far superior to the ones you find in department stores.

A neighbor who used to live on one side of us--not the moron who lives on the other side and has caused us legal headaches--built the deck on the back of his house. Not long after he finished it, we had a professional come to look at storm damage we'd had on our deck. The pro noticed the deck next door and said, "Who in the world built that deck?"

"The guy who lives there," I said.

"Wow, I couldn't begin to build a deck of that quality," the pro said. "It would cost me way too much to do it."

Citizen journalism, like any field, can have its abusive practitioners. It's up to the public to sort those out. But Safer, of all people, should understand the vital role new forms of journalism already play.

Consider the piece 60 Minutes did on the Don Siegelman prosecution in Alabama. That piece never would have gotten off the ground without the reporting of Scott Horton at his blog No Comment on the Harper's magazine Web site. And the story picked up critical momentum, leading to the 60 Minutes piece, thanks to the work of "new media" journalists such as Larisa Alexandrovna at Raw Story and Glynn Wilson at Locust Fork News-Journal.

Horton, a Columbia University law professor, probably is not who Safer had in mind when he talked about the nuts in the blogosphere. But Horton produced his groundbreaking work on a blog, generating material that Harper's probably would not have run in its magazine, at least not in such a timely fashion.

Alexandrovna and Wilson have strong journalism credentials--again, they probably are not the kind of people Safer had in mind. But as in most fields, citizen journalism produces both wheat and chaff. And I suspect there is more wheat out there than Safer would care to admit.

Safer apparently failed to discuss the myriad ways the modern mainstream press has failed to do its job. Consider the story of judicial corruption in Alabama that launched Legal Schnauzer:

I witnessed the sleaze in Shelby County first hand and mentioned it to several mainstream journalists in the Birmingham area. "Oh yeah, I've heard stuff like that goes on down there Columbiana," they would say, or words to that effect. Did they do anything about it? Nope.

It was left to me to tell the story, and I wound up losing my job because of it. Has the mainstream press picked up on that story? Not really. Raw Story, No Comment, and OpEd News--all forms of new media--have covered it. The Chronicle of Higher Education, a mainstream outlet, did a brief item about it, only because it could pick up on Raw Story's investigative work.

Meanwhile, I've uncovered all kinds of wrongdoing at UAB--some of which I've written about already, with much more to come. Has the mainstream media shown any interest, even though this is an institution that receives massive amounts of public funds? Nope.

So you see, Mr. Safer, there are large and expanding gaps in coverage provided by the mainstream press. Various forms of "new media" are helping to fill those gaps.

You should be grateful for that trend. Your news organization already is relying on it.

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