Sep 052007

“Prostitutes and gigolos are sexual professionals. Through hard work and experience, they are now masters of their craft. The best surely deserve excellent pay for what they do. If we have sex with amateurs and without paying for it, how will the professionals be able to continue to offer their vital services? Our culture will be destroyed. Ancient traditions will come to a halt. And the masters, the real pros, have yet another vital function: they help spread much-needed venereal diseases that keep our medical workers employed; how can we hope to maintain our way of life without the pros?”  I suspect that is roughly what Andrew Keen would have written had he been around to comment on the ‘60’s sexual revolution.

At least that is the impression I get when he warns in his new book, the cult of the amateur: how today’s internet is killing our culture, against bloggers, video uploaders and wikipedia writers. To him they are amateurs, who will displace “professional” journalists, ad copywriters, encyclopedia writers, political consultants, and so on. The trouble is, he seems basically to define “professional” simply by the fact that whatever the people in question do, like prostitutes they insist on being paid for it.

It’s true that most of us would be rightfully suspicious of amateur airline mechanics or brain surgeons, but not all so-called professions are the same. When we partially professionalize sports down to the level of Little League, we lose much of what active games once offered: free play, enjoyment for the participants, and a role for everyone regardless of skill. Professionalized athletes are good at starring, at showing off for the rest of us, and even at entertaining, but excluding the duffers is not necessarily a good side effect. Similarly, today’s politicians are professional at the art of getting elected, rather than keeping the interests of the public at large most at heart, nor at having the courage to do the right thing, nor to lead opinion by making clear cases for the common weal. Professional journalists know how to write an article, how to interview “the usual suspects,” and how to repeat what passes for common wisdom among their fellow journalists and those they most often interview. However, they often lack the wide knowledge of a field such as history, political movements or science that is a necessary background to write sensibly about the topic at hand. Journalism schools do not teach such subjects, at least not in any depth. (I will get to encyclopedia writers and ad writers in the next installment of this review.)

Keen offers only two examples of “professional journalists”  — Thomas Friedman of the NY Times and Robert Fisk of the London Independent. These are not reassuring examples. They both are, in Keen’s view, experts on the Middle East. One would expect two professional and highly reputed brain surgeons to agree most of the time on the broad outlines of how to treat particular cases. But Freidman and Fisk hardly ever do come out the same. Both have very strong — but differing — ideological biases, along with quite different ideas of who to talk to. Depending on which newspaper you read, therefore, you would get markedly different sense of how the world is. I trust neither of them, as it happens. They both lack wider judgment. I don’t want either shaping my mind too fully, and even both together would make a hash of things. (Of course, there are millions of other “experts on the Middle East” — those who grew up or live there permanently. They of course would vociferously disagree with most of the others about anything related to the topic. But that is just the nature of geographical area “expertise;” there are few objective truths.)

2. We could use a Thomas with more doubts
In the run up to the current Iraq war, which Keen admits is a huge folly, Friedman was one of the main cheerleaders, continually arguing that Iraq could easily become a democracy that would then be a beacon and a model for the entire Middle East, (meaning Southwest Asia plus North Africa)  which would then undercut support for Islamic terrorism. Not any step of that argument ever made the least sense, as many observers, expert and non-expert on the Mideast, blogger and non-blogger, said at the time. In the past week, almost five years since his war-cheerleading days, Friedman finally has suggested that the person needed to keep peace in Iraq was none other than Saddam Hussein, the dictator he was so eager to depose.

The problem with Friedman, as with Judith Miller, another NY Times Middle East “expert,” Michael Gordon, their military affairs guy, and Howell Raines, The Times’s editor at that time — along with hundreds of others with different employers is that they are part of an establishment in Washington and elsewhere, who get attention through access to others who also get attention, and are likely to be excluded if they happen to note that the emperor has no clothes. So they tend to find elaborate reasons why what appears to the unaided eye to be nakedness is really the most subtle and skillful finery.

The Washington DC equivalent of the Academy Awards is the annual dinner of the White House Correspondents’ Association, at which the President is always the most honored guest, and which is usually attended by assorted movie and other stars. The main difference from the Oscars that it is not widely televised, but as in Hollywood’s turn at self-celebration, there is entertainment. In 2006, the standard joke-telling role was assigned — apparently by someone who had never watched him — to Stephen Colbert of Comedy Central’s Colbert Report. He did not keep to the expected harmless one-liners, but instead, dared in the President’s presence to declare at last, and very funnily, that Bush was wearing not even a (metaphorical) stitch. The regular White House reporters, including Elizabeth Bumiller of the Times, were incensed, describing Colbert’s shtik as decidedly unfunny and rude. But it was captured on YouTube, and the jig was up. In a democracy, certainly, rudeness to a president can be a higher civic duty.

3. Professions and Attention

Every profession — that is, any group whose members all are viewed by the public as proceeding in some particular way with some basis in common skill and knowledge — gets some attention and shares some internally as well. But the degree this is central to their activities varies a lot. An excellent brain surgeon or airline mechanic may never be known to the larger public and not much care. Near the other extreme are reporters and politicians. Like movie stars, novelists and other artists, they would not fare well without nearly constant attention from quite large audiences. Unlike artists however, but like many business leaders and others they find themselves in an intrinsically compromised role: they get attention in part by claiming to provide a kind of objectivity that goes along more with the old order of the Money-thing World than the new.

Those professions that are farther away from the attention extreme tend to do something whose success can be measured strictly on the basis of the individual achievement. An oil well’s success can be measured strictly in monetary terms if you know the output in barrels and the price of oil that day. The geologist who determined this was a good place to drill can measure her success by the same standard. Similarly a factory that turns out standard 100-watt light bulbs can measure the worth of the bulbs with fair accuracy, and the manager’s success should be related to that. A land surveyor’s accuracy or a surgeon’s success rate with a certain kind of operation is also pretty independent of audience attention.

But a reporter’s success or a singer’s or even that of an encyclopedia writer or an ad copywriter cannot be determined without taking into account the attention the work gets. And that attention, as I have discussed before, flows through the work to the writer or performer herself.
Accuracy matters for a reporter’s work, for example, but in a news article, accuracy alone does not make the article worthy of attention. News matters if the audience cares about it, which will be less true if they have heard it before or if the subject matter does not grab them.

Bylines matter too; reporters strive to get attention on the basis of the ways they cover topics and what topics they specialize in, but they often need to share the attention of the people they interview or write about, and building those people up can enhance their own stardom very easily as well.

4. This just in! We have less news!

“Stop the presses!” That was great line in old movies, yelled by an actor playing a reporter rushing into a newsroom. But would that scene seem realistic today? In truth, less and less news nowadays is simply the reporting of clear objective facts that “matter,” rather than interpretation, regurgitated press releases, attempts to dig up a story based on mere shreds of evidence, or near-essays on hopefully interesting topics. No wonder more and more citizens tune out.

If we imagine the world of a thousand years ago, say in Western Europe, though there were certainly no newspapers, “news” could be of vital importance. What marauders or invading groups of knights might be coming this way? Which lord has died recently; which has interlinked his fortune with another lord through marriage; which overlord might be traveling though surveying his and his vassals’ estates? What epidemics have been heard of? And, in the few active ports, what ships have come in, or which might have foundered? And so on.

By the nineteenth century, when daily newspapers were beginning to take on some of the characteristics still present today  — and from which many current newspapers trace their origins, the news of the day still consisted of reports of fronts advancing in frequent wars (such as the Civil War, the Mexican and Spanish-American Wars, and numerous battles against American Indians); riots; land rushes; gold and other “strikes” that led to numerous gold and silver rushes in California, Colorado and Alaska, for instance, labor strife, epidemics, assassinations, nation-states  coming into being — Italy, Germany, and all the nations of Latin America, among them, train and ship wrecks, news of ships safely but unexpectedly arriving in port, discoveries by explorers trekking through uncharted spots — which, as little as a hundred years ago, included the North and South Pole. (Much of that news, by the way, was without bylines, except perhaps “from our correspondent” — as anonymous, and sometimes as venomous or libelous as anything decried by Keen on the Internet now.)

As recently as the 1950’s and 60’s, for Americans, such news, though referring to more distant events had the same kind of daily importance. Reports of advances or retreats by armies (in the Korean war), of ship or train wrecks or plane crashes were common. It was even still of some relevance in a place like New York to know which ships had docked that day, because passage time was unreliable. Epidemics such as polio were still serious and unpredictable scourges affecting many families. Labor strikes were big enough to have major impact on daily life. So were civil rights struggles in the south, riots in major cities, student actions, assassinations, frequent coups abroad, anti-colonial and other revolutions, etc. The Cuban missile crisis of 1962, apparently had the world poised on the brink of nuclear war.

Today, on the whole, such newsy news is a thing of the past. Despite “embedded reporters” in the initial invasion of Iraq, the war in the traditional form of an advancing front did not last long, nor was the outcome of that phase in doubt. Daily reports of suicide bombings, etc., fade into a constant background noise, with nothing specifically newsworthy apart from the specifics of the latest outrages. Who is “winning,” if anyone, is not amenable for reporters to discover. This is more or less a repeat of Vietnam, where there were no real fronts most of the time.

9-11 itself was a shocking and unprecedented event, to be sure, but it has not actually presaged anything like the battles of major wars. Despite many claims that we are in a long war with terrorists, so far there is only that one extremely traumatic event to demonstrate that. Six years later, little actual news can be reported that bears on the progress of that war. Similarly though we are treated to scares of a variety of epidemics that could possibly prove highly lethal, in reality very few Americans die of them, or they are fairly quickly stopped in their tracks (at least here at home). AIDS was a scourge, and is still certainly a danger, but it no longer has widespread impact in the advanced countries.

Even political leaders seem to be less available as targets of assassins than they once were. It would seem then that actual “professionals” such as professional administrators or Secret Service Agents or air controllers (along with airline pilots and mechanics) who prevent most air disasters, do their jobs so well the world had become, from a news point of view, a much more known and therefore duller place. A much smaller percentage of daily reporting refers to unexpected occurrences that are especially newsworthy on the day the stories happen to be published.

Yet we have more professional journalists (that is, those who are paid, and who have studied journalism —or media— in college or graduate school) than ever. Press conferences for even minor events or entirely staged happenings are often crowded. One of the most familiar scenes is of someone standing before a huge bank of microphones with dozens of news photographers jammed together to shoot pictures and reporters trying to hear what is said and to sneak in one or two lines of “exclusive interview.”

5. News Stars Rock! (They hope.)

Why are there so many reporters now if there is less news than ever? Only because, I would argue, journalism is exciting as a potential way to get attention. Where once many news reporters were anonymous, most today get bylines, and can become quite famous, at least in news circles for their reports or columns. We all have heard of Woodward and Bernstein, and as a result “investigative reporting” has become a desirable calling, even though it is often little more than seeking after criminal behavior on the part of politicians, because the reporters often have little real understanding of what might be important to probe to reveal worrisome aspects of the larger society, and such news needs a hook if editors are to run it.

Allegations of even minor criminal matters capture reporters’ imaginations, and sometimes do pull in large audiences. A politician like Senator Larry Craig, can be a great and useless nincompoop, of little interest to anyone but his constituents, until caught doing something slightly weird in a public restroom. Would any professional reporter have thought to report on his mediocrity were it not for this bizarre irrelevancy? Andrew Keen suggests that only bloggers report such trivialities. This is the opposite of the truth. (Keen falsely cites the Swift-boaters attack on Kerry in 2004 as if it were mostly done by blogging. In fact, the main effort was on a series of TV ads.) In 1988, Gary Hart was forced to abandon his presidential campaign because reporters for the Miami Herald discovered him apparently shacking up with someone not his wife. There were no bloggers then.

In an earlier era, to be sure, reporters kept quiet about JFK’s numerous liaisons, because they took it as matter of course — and perhaps, in those days, there was enough real news to go around. Today’s professional reporters are much hungrier, since there are now so many of them and less newsy news to report, so they would eagerly pick up on almost anything, even if the source were a blogger. Yet, editors seem to be afraid to stick out their necks to allow reporters to report on anything that other reporters haven’t caught up to, so news people often travel in packs. Bloggers who are not professionals can take up issues where reporters dare not tread, and thus have become a vital resource.

Keen quotes at face value a business reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle who self-servingly claims that the difference between professional reporters and bloggers is that only the former risk going to jail over their stories. This is utter bilge. In fact reporters are at least somewhat protected by shield laws from going to jail for keeping their notes out of the hands of prosecutors. Bloggers at present have no such protection. Bloggers also risk suit for libel, just as reporters do. To be sure, reporters can risk jail or even death in places like Iraq, but certainly so do bloggers. Reporters have newspapers and professional associations to protect them and stand up for their rights. Bloggers are much more naked. Even in Iraq, indeed, it is much safer to be a journalist for a major US paper than to be someone interviewed by them, and bloggers are in as much danger in such locales as the average person who dares speak to the press.

Many bloggers of course have little to contribute, but so do many reporters. Often bloggers are just editorializing, but editorials can be important in newspapers, and if bloggers have a freer rein that in itself can be of value. To be much read as a blogger, one has to have a distinctive voice and some specific point of  view , some specialty or other, so bloggers can at times be much deeper than news reporters. Beholden to no one, they can say the truth as they see it.

6. Wanted: Want Ads

One of Keen’s main concerns is that if bloggers replace newpapers, journalism will die because it will not be rewarded. Of course, what is rewarded and how that occurs does change as we move into Attention-World. Still, there are no sacrosanct methods of rewarding reporting anyway. Some reporters have always been considered so valuable that they earned a living through subscriptions to their newsletters. Others have been one hundred-percent supported by advertisers, but that can be a tricky source of reward, since one dare not bite the hand that feeds.

Generally speaking, in Attention-World, those who pay attention will strive to satisfy the attent’s needs, to the extent they can. (All of this is explained in my draft chapter on attention.) Why is it better that this be done indirectly, as Keen would like, say by continuing to have newspapers supported substantially by classified ad payments? When mass-distribution newspapers first appeared on the scene with their high-speed presses, high circulation and delivery to many neighborhoods of a city, it worked out well for newspapers to bundle classified ads in, since they could be printed when the presses would otherwise be idle.

The cost of those ads, however, was set artificially high. The advertisers could not usefully complain, since the newspapers had a relative monopoly, and the classified advertisers themselves were no position to unite to fight the rates, for what were often one-time ads. So the cost of reporting was largely borne by folks looking for jobs, places to live or used cars. These were not necessarily the same as those interested in the news stories the paper carried. (I am assuming the claim is true that customers of products or workers getting jobs ultimately pay for the advertising costs.) The relatively poor in effect subsidized the relatively better off who read the news as well as the reporters themselves.

When a new technology such as the Internet makes possible classified advertising essentially for free, why should we not look at that as something positive? We will just have to find new methods to reward those to whom we actually pay attention. How we do this can vary, and we might have to invent new modes, but there is no reason to suppose we won’t want to. True, our attention may not continue to go to the “traditional” news media, but our traditions on this score have constantly changed anyway. High-speed presses and major city-wide dailies came in only towards the end of the nineteenth century; news magazines started in the 1920’s;radio news came to prominence in the 30’s and 40’s; TV broadcast news became a nightly staple for most in the ‘60’s; cable news networks grew in the 80’s and 90’s; and now the Internet with bloggers of various kinds and YouTube are playing a larger role.

Ordinary people have always found some way to discuss whatever news seemed important to them. Today, a considerable proportion of that news, like this essay, is in itself a kind of meta-news. We may be more interested in issues surrounding who gets attention, or how to get it or restrict it, than in anything else.  But since a very large number of us are interested in that to some degree, being part of the conversation is of growing value. People eagerly — and sometimes very intelligently and articulately — add their comments to news articles, news columns, and blogs. They e-mail each other articles of interest, or  engage in detailed discussions on listservs.

Of course, much of what it said is not so intelligent or articulate, by whoever’s standards you choose to use, but it is no worse than what is said on some of the cable-news channels or on talk radio, or formerly what got into many letters-to-the-editor columns, or even was said by “professional” columnists and reporters on smaller papers, etc. Nor is it worse than conversations people used to have in the local pub or their neighbor’s kitchen or in college dorms.

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