07 July 2010

Old Media vs. New Media?

My favorite columnists are (like ten million other people) David Brooks and Gail Collins of the New York Times. Brooks is the rational and pragmatic me and Collins is my inner cynic. Their Opinionator exchanges are regularly fabulous.

This most recent exchange was on Old Media vs. New Media. Brooks clearly sees himself as the former and, implicitly, Collins is colored as the latter. Old Media is dedicated to "just the facts, ma'am" impartiality and accuracy that (per Brooks) can only be done if there is a certain degree of coziness with the subjects, at least if you are covering a beat. Burn or sour your sources and you will be reduced to punditry, speculating from the outside without any direct access to the most relevant people and facts. Collins sees her journalistic self as a member of "scorn contingent," whose job it is to burn those who deserve to be burned, and damn the consequences. Better perhaps to speak forcefully based on half the facts than with restraint on all of them. Collins is clearly less concerned than Brooks about straying into the territory of advocacy media.

Is this really the divide between old and new media? Does "just the facts" reporting require certain compromises, just to get those facts? Are those compromises unacceptable? Are reporters charged with an advocacy mandate? Should we have a professional "scorn contingent"? Is that the new journalism?


Mister Fweem said...

I’ve got two books you ought to read, Carl. They both throw a lot of light on the questions you’re posing.

The first is “All the President’s Men,” by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Classic reportage on the Watergate break-ins. More importantly, it’s reporting on the reporting process from the point of view of two scorn contingent journalists who had to work damned hard for what they got. They screwed up royally at times, made their sources very angry. But they continued working the facts, occasionally letting advocacy get in their way, but when they strayed, when they screwed up, they had to keep going back to the facts.

The other is from the same era: Theodore White’s “The Making of the President 1968.” White, a journalist and historian, paints with a broader brush than do Woodard and Bernstein, but he concentrates on the foibles of politicians and journalists and analysts and everyone else who allows advocacy and loyalty and the “greater truths” of political will or careerism to paper over the facts to give us a fuzzy, more comfortable, and ultimately less factual picture of what’s going on. (It’s ironic that White, a long-time friend of the Kennedys, fell himself into this trap when, shortly after JFK’s death, he collaborated with Jacqueline Kennedy to pretty much manufacture the “Kennedy/Camelot” myth.)

I don’t see the shallow careerist/scorn contingent as the dividing line between old media and new media. As Clay Shirky, author of “Here Comes Everybody” writes, what the Internet is bringing to the media world – and just about everyone else – is the ability to publish and distribute information at much less cost, and with much less effort, than ever before. The old media contingent likes to seize upon this ease to dismiss bloggers and their ilk by saying just because it’s easy enough everyone can do it doesn’t mean everyone should do it, while the new media contingent seized upon this ease to show old media that you don’t have to own a printing press or a broadcast tower or a cable company to produce consumable news and commentary. There are shallow careerists in new and old media. There is an active and strong scorn contingent in new and old media. That hasn’t changed, whether the medium is fueled by silicon and electrons, printed on dead trees, broadcast by radio waves or painted on elk skin, baked into clay tablets or pieced together in mosaics.

carl g said...

Thanks for the book titles. I think you've confirmed my own take that the line that piece draws is really not between old and new media at all. Sure, the internet makes shallow punditry effortless and voluminous, I think the collapse of old media may lead to some even tougher journalism as it comes to depend less on traditional revenue streams, which it old media of course must protect. At the end of the day, old media is of course a business and must behave like a business. I'm thinking again about that post on the VII photo agency I did last year.