Express Yourself  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Columns :    ABOVE THE FOLD    
From AJR,   December 2006/January 2007

Express Yourself   

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money.”
—Samuel Johnson

By Thomas Kunkel
Thomas Kunkel (editor@ajr.umd.edu), president of AJR, is dean of the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


Sam, you were the original Dr. J, and your social observations were so spot-on that you occupy almost 10 pages in my "Oxford Dictionary of Quotations." Still, were you alive today, I'll bet you'd be blogging away at the DailyDoc or some such, and probably for no more money than the millions of other "blockheads" out there who are writing their noggins off.

As a card-carrying media professional, I empathize with my brethren and sistren fretting at the notion of all those semi-pros and amateurs traducing our heretofore exclusive right to decide What's Important. Who let that happen? I mean, wasn't somebody supposed to be guarding the door?

But, really, this must qualify as the least surprising phenomenon going. From our cave days humans have indulged a desire to let others know that we are here, that we matter. From there it's not much of a leap to "We want to be heard," and the Internet is proving to be the greatest megaphone ever devised.

Ironically, from a news standpoint, the rise of all-comers journalism is really just a circling back to our roots. We often forget that the very term stems from "journal," and what are blogs and MySpace pages but contemporary journals?

As Tom Rosenstiel and Bill Kovach reminded us in their fine book "The Elements of Journalism," this is precisely how modern news got its start. In the coffeehouses and taverns of 17th-century England, and soon after in America, visitors often recorded the news and gossip they'd picked up in their travels, personal reports that were posted for others to read. It wasn't long before some enterprising publican pulled these dispatches together into the first newspaper. And you thought OhmyNews pioneered the idea of a civilian news army! Now that same people-power fuels news sites all over the Web.

New York Times columnist Tom Friedman was here at Maryland recently, his best-seller "The World Is Flat" being our university's first-year book. He told about 1,500 young Terps that broadband and ever-faster computers have fundamentally changed our relationship with the Web, which is to say the average consumer has gone from almost exclusively downloading material to being a vigorous uploader.

Today we post our thoughts and experiences, our videos, our feedback to movies and books, our foibles and yes, even our body parts — well, thankfully, not all of us are posting body parts. But Friedman's point is apt: Media power is shifting from the institutional few — gulp — to the many. As he put it, "You happen to be around when Gutenberg invented the printing press."

It's a change that is frankly overdue. Media arrogance — whether reflected attitudinally (in the news pages) or institutionally (shortchanging communities in coverage) — largely gave rise to what in one sense can be interpreted as a populist backlash.

But as we are starting to figure out, the pros and the people not only can live with one another, we need one another. Without the reporting of mainstream journalists, what would bloggers blog about? After all, most of what we know about the public sphere is still unearthed by journalists. Then again, an emerging nation of citizen journalists is covering ignored communities, reimagining what news is, keeping a skeptical eye on the accuracy and judgment of the pros. Think not? Ask Dan Rather.

In the process they enrich the information mix. Critics Stephen Hunter of the Washington Post and Anthony Lane of The New Yorker may still be my go-to guys for movies. But Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com), with its wisdom of the masses, is reliable and entertaining too, albeit in a different way.

This meeting of old and new media is an uneasy one, needless to say, in part because of the battle over agenda-setting. In late October the Post reported on ostensible outrage over the bluer passes of Virginia Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb's combat novels. On the story's jump we learned that then-Sen. George Allen's aides "have been trying to get other news organizations to write about the excerpts for weeks." When in frustration Webb's opponents released this "news" to Matt Drudge, it predictably prompted a talk-radio tempest, and this goofy non-story winds up on the Post's front page.

I wish the paper had had the courage to cling to its original conviction. The understandable pressure it felt belied this new media mix at its worst — not so much a world without taste as a world without judgment.

But even there, a little reflection reminds us that democracy, like a good stew, is inherently messy — and on the Web anyone can cook.

A few weeks ago another national figure, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, was on our campus. Breyer was talking about "active liberty," a phrase that, not coincidentally, is the title of his recent book. He admitted that today's blog-fueled partisanship gives him a headache, as the din can be as deafening as it is scary.

But then he thinks better of this anxiety, tells himself that the cacophony is in fact the sound of democracy. And as he said, "Better a high decibel level than none at all."

Excuse me a moment while I go upload that...

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