Belmont Club

The one and the many

If you were in the business of detecting original data, which would you rather have? An array of 10,000 independently reporting, but cheap sensors sending a raw signal or one very expensive sensor that decides whether or not an event had occurred? Dan Rather argued that the White House should create a commission to find ways to save the struggling journalistic profession, according to the Aspen Daily News.

“I personally encourage the president to establish a White House commission on public media,” the legendary newsman said. … “A truly free and independent press is the red beating heart of democracy and freedom … This is not something just for journalists to be concerned about, and the loss of jobs and the loss of newspapers, and the diminution of the American press’ traditional role of being the watchdog on power. This is something every citizen should be concerned about.”

Speaking at the Aspen Institute, Dan Rather expressed his concerns about online blogging, which he believed could never replace the “craft” of journalism which was reeling under the triple whammies of “corporatization, politicization, and trivialization” and in “free fall”. “On the Internet, nobody wants censorship … just put anything out there with no accountability.”

Rather gave no details of what the White House commission was expected to do, but on the face of his critique it seems reasonable to assume that Rather is hoping for some source of non-corporate funding to support what he regards as non-trivial newsgathering by craft journalists for a non-political purpose. For example, the former anchorman hoped there would be a “national debate” on Afghanistan, not that he wanted America to leave it yet. In the Aspen Daily News, Rather hinted that if government would not ride to the rescue of journalists, then perhaps large private foundations like the Carnegie Foundation might.

Yet not even the Carnegie Foundation, perhaps not even the US government can supply enough dollars to support a network of sufficient density to cover “foreign wars”, overseas destinations and small towns. Nor is it reasonable to imagine that government paid or foundation supported journalists will freely engage in investigative reporting when the consequences of biting the hand that feeds them are so dire. Either future efforts are supported by the market under some new business model or whole areas will simply go unmonitored, except for those fortunate areas in which the “First Amendment” will be upheld by an “independent media”.

Which brings us back to the question posed at the start of this post. If you were in the business of detecting original data, which would you rather have? An array of 10,000 independently reporting, but cheap sensors sending a raw signal or one very expensive sensor that decides whether or not an event had occurred? Personally I would rather have both, and will argue that having the former allows us to support the latter. Trained human journalists like Michael Yon or Michael Totten — or Dan Rather — work best as data interpreters. There ought to be better ways at getting at the raw facts than through expensive foreign correspondents. The are best employed to help us figure out — but ideally do not tell us — what things mean. They push out hypotheses and, if the public has access to a body of collateral sensors (provided by Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and the Blogs) then they can drill down and decide for themselves whether the human reporter has interpreted the data correctly. The biggest change the Internet has made on journalism is that it is no longer journalism — in the sense of a man keeping a journal. It is epistolary. It is letter writing, with the communications going in both directions. The modern journalist, pundit or blogger — and sometimes the difference between these categories is a matter of degree — is in a constant dialogue with his readers. He doesn’t publish; that’s oldspeak. He posts. The word “post” captures the epistolary nature of the new enterprise perfectly. For the reader is no longer a passive consumer of stories, he is an active partner in the search for the truth.

For that reason, the government or foundation type of journalist described by Rather, while certainly admissible, will be laboring under the huge disadvantage of a conflict of interest. He is working for someone other than his readers. He can be in as much dialogue with them as the letter-writers in your local bank are when they send you a form letter describing a new Super Saver Home Mortgage. Any attempt to rescue the media under Dan Rather’s terms will be destroying the village in order to save it.


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