Journalism is the conversation. The conversation is journalism.
I am sorely disappointed in The New York Times’ Farhad Manjoo, CNN’s Brian Stelter, and other journalists who these days are announcing to the world, using the powerful platforms they have, that they think journalists should “disengage” from the platform for everyone else, Twitter.
No. It is the sacred duty of journalists to listen to the public they serve. It is then their duty to bring journalistic value — reporting, facts, explanation, context, education, connections, understanding, empathy, action, options— to the public conversation. Journalism is that conversation. Democracy is that conversation.
In a moment, I will quote from the late James Carey’s eloquent lessons on the primacy of the conversation in journalism. But first I want to observe, as I’ve written before, that these journalists’ pronouncements come from a position of extreme privilege. Manjoo has a column, Stelter a show where they can expose their worries to the world. If you are an African-American who is shopping or barbecuing or eating lunch or going into your own home when a white person calls the police on you, you do not have a newsroom of journalists who look like you who will tell your story because they, too, have lived it. The outlet you have is a hashtag on Twitter. These stories are now, finally, making it into mainstream media only because #livingwhileblack exists as a tool for those forever unrepresented and unserved by mass media. When journalists delete, dismiss, or disengage from Twitter or Facebook or YouTube or Instagram or Reddit or blogs, they turn their backs on the people who finally — like the journalists — have a printing press to call their own. For too long — since Habermas’ alleged birth of the public sphere in the coffee houses and salons of London and Paris — that sphere has excluded too many people, whom social media finally can include. Listen to them.
In fairness to Manjoo, he does not suggest killing Twitter entirely. “Instead, post less, lurk more,” he advises. No. Two problems with that: It means that journalists continue to rob and exploit the stories of people for their articles without giving them the respect of conversation and collaboration. And it means that journalists are not doing what they can to bring journalism to the public conversation where it occurs — which they can finally do, thanks to the internet. I learned this at Vidcon: In some cases, we need to remake news as social tokens packed with fact and context that people can share in their own conversations. The public conversation is indeed in need of help. We cannot help that conversation by disengaging from it.
Manjoo also suggests, rightly, that journalists get their acts together and not be jerks and bozos online. Who can argue with that? But to be clear, that is entirely up to journalists — and everyone on Twitter. I do not subscribe to the technological determinism and moral panic that blames the tool. “Twitter is ruining American journalism,” says Manjoo. No, journalists are responsible for the state of American journalism. They have no one to blame but themselves when they jump on a story too soon with unconfirmed information and rash conclusions, when they insist on joining in with their own needless and repetitive hot takes, when they match snark for snark. When I’m a jerk on Twitter it’s because I’m being a jerk, not because Twitter made me one. “Everything about Twitter’s interface encourages a mind-set antithetical to journalistic inquiry,” Manjoo argues. “It prizes image over substance and cheap dunks over reasoned debate, all the while severely abridging the temporal scope of the press.” No, I find plenty of very smart people on Twitter who share information and perspective and wisdom. If you haven’t found them, you haven’t tried hard enough; you haven’t done your reporting. A poor craftsman blames his Twitter.
In the discussion about this over the last week or so, I’ve seen people responding to my arguments by saying that Twitter is not representative of the population. Well, neither is The New York Times. I’ve seen them complain that Twitter has assholes. Well, so does the world; don’t follow them. And I’ve seen them say that Twitter is too small to bother with. That is an outmoded, mass-media worldview — inspired by the commercial demands of advertisers — that values and recognizes only scale. Stop thinking of people as masses; start recognizing them as individuals and members of communities and you will begin to appreciate the people you can meet, hear, and learn from on Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and in tools not yet imagined, tools that connect people (which is the value of the net) rather than merely manufacture content (which is the value of old, dying, mass media).
Now I’d like to call class to order and invite the spirit of the too-soon-departed Columbia professor, James Carey from his essay, “A Republic, If You Can Keep It”: Liberty and Public Life in the Age of Glasnost. (Sadly, that link is behind a paywall. I heartily recommend the book James Carey: A Critical Reader, especially including Jay Rosen’s introduction to this essay.) Here Carey teaches us about the true nature of journalism and democracy.
But I believe we must begin from the primacy of conversation. It implies social arrangements less hierarchical and more egalitarian than its alternatives. While people often dry up and shy away from the fierceness of argument, disputation, and debate, and while those forms of talk often bring to the surface the meanness and aggressiveness that is our second nature, conversation implies the most natural and unforced, unthreatening, and most satisfying of arrangements.
A press that encourages the conversation of [the public’s] culture is the equivalent of an extended town meeting. However, if the press sees its role as limited to informing whoever happens to turn up at the end of the communication channel, it explicitly abandons its role as an agency for carrying on the conversation of the culture.
That is to say, if the press serves only those who come to its destinations and pay to get past its paywalls then it is serving only a tiny elite. Talk about echo chambers, that is an echo chamber.
Carey continues even more sternly:
A press independent of the conversation of culture, or existing in the absence of such a conversation, is likely to be, in practical terms, whatever the value of the right the press represents, a menace to public life and an effective politics. The idea of the press as a mass medium, independent of, disarticulated from, the conversation of the culture, inherently contradicts the goal of creating an active remembering public. Public memory can be recorded by but cannot be transmitted through the press as an institution. The First Amendment, to repeat, constitutes us as a society of conversationalists, of people who talk to one another, who resolve disputes with one another through talk. This is the foundation of the public realm, the inner meaning of the First Amendment, and the example the people of Eastern Europe were quite inadvertently trying to teach us. The “public” is the God term of the press, the term without which the press does not make any sense. Insofar as the press is grounded, it is grounded in the public. The press justifies itself in the name of the public. It exists, or so it is said, to inform the public, to serve as the extended eyes and ears of the public. The press is the guardian of the public interest and protects the public’s right to know. The canons of the press originate in and flow from the relationship of the press to the public.
This is about respecting more than journalism. It is about maintaining democracy:
Republics require conversation, often cacophonous conversation, for they should be noisy places. That conversation has to be informed, of course, and the press has a role in supplying that information. But the kind of information required can be generated only by public conversation; there is simply no substitute for it. We have virtually no idea what it is we need to know until we start talking to someone. Conversation focuses our attention, it engages us, and in the wake of conversation we have need not only of the press but also of the library. From this view of the First Amendment, the task of the press is to encourage the conversation of the culture — not to preempt it or substitute for it or supply it with information as a seer from afar. Rather, the press maintains and enhances the conversation of the culture, becomes one voice in that conversation, amplifies the conversation outward, and helps it along by bringing forward the information that the conversation itself demands.
We say we in the press are guardians of the First Amendment as we are guarded by it. Carey tells us what the First Amendment really means:
We value, or so we say, the First Amendment because it contributes, in Thomas Emerson’s formulation, four things to our common life. It is a method of assuring our own self-fulfillment; it is a means of attaining the truth; it is a method of securing participation of members of society in political decision making; and it is a means of maintaining a balance between stability and change.
This is why I value social media and how it gives us the ability to hear people too long not heard. This is why I started a degree in Social Journalism at the Newmark J-School, where my colleague Carrie Brown and our students constantly explore new definitions, new obligations, and new opportunities for journalism that the net enables. This is why I so admire Spaceship Media, a journalistic startup that embodies my revised definition and mission of journalism: to convene communities into civil, informed, and productive conversation. This is why I argue for a post-content, relationship-based strategy for the future of journalism. It starts with listening.
Manjoo ends declaring: “Twitter will ruin us, and we should stop.” No, that attitude of snobbery and willful ignorance of the world around us and moral panic about technology is what will la-la-la the news business into oblivion.
But don’t listen to me. Go to Twitter and Facebook and elsewhere and find new people you don’t know who experience things you don’t experience who have perspectives you don’t have and listen to them. That is journalism.
We must turn to the task of creating a public realm in which a free people can assemble, speak their minds, and then write or tape or otherwise record the extended conversation so that others, out of sight, might see it. If the established press wants to aid the process, so much the better. But if, in love with profits and tied to corporate interests, the press decides to sit out public life, we shall simply have to create a space for citizens and patriots by ourselves.
He wrote that in 1991, 15 years before Twitter was created because the press didn’t create it and someone else had to.