Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reckless Innovation Journalism?

I find it ironically amusing that my "Reckless Innovative Minds?" post yesterday, which concerned Stanford University’s Institute of Design, should have followed so close on the heels of that same university's "Innovation Journalism" conference. On the basis of at least one of the panel discussions at this conference, now available on video through CNET News, it would appear that recklessness was rampant in the planning before even getting to the execution. Consider the summary on the Web page for this video:

Wikileaks brags that it's produced more scoops in its lifetime than the Washington Post has in 30 years: is this the future of journalism? CNET correspondent Declan McCullagh, center, asks this question at Stanford University's Innovation Journalism conference on June 7. Panelists from left to right: Paul Saffo, technology forecaster; Roger Myers, media attorney who represented CBS Interactive in effort to unseal Gizmodo documents; Jennifer Granick, Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney; William Coats, litigator who has represented clients including Lucasfilm and DVDCCA on intellectual property cases.

I am less concerned with the idea of Wikileaks being the future of journalism being proposed as a topic for debate (debates can be held over whether the earth is flat, for all I care) than I am with the constitution of the panel. Note the absence of any practicing journalists. This seems to convey the message (rather in the spirit of Georges Clemenceau) that the future of journalism is too serious to be decided by active practitioners.

This is one of those cases where I have no trouble asserting that our government has a more realistic perception of the current state of affairs than Stanford University, if not the academic community at large. I am referring to the fact that, almost exactly a year ago, the Subcommittee (of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation) on Communications, Technology, and the Internet convened a hearing on (guess what) "The Future of Journalism." This hearing distinguished itself in many ways; and, in the context of the Stanford panel, one of those important may have been the total absence of lawyers (and futurists). Instead the focus was on the practice of journalism, including whether or not "citizen journalism," of which Wikileaks is the most recent example, has a place in where those practices are heading.

Last year I felt this topic was important enough that I visited the Senate Committee Web site in order to read all of the hearing testimony. I found it hard to tell how many (if any) of the Stanford participants felt that this was relevant reading matter. However, I still feel, as I did a year ago, that some of the most important insights came from David Simon. Simon is probably best known (apparently internationally by now) for The Wire; and I have suggested that the success of this television series had to do with how Simon "wrote with the keen eye of an ethnographer and the direct style of a journalist." The same can be said for the text he delivered at the Subcommittee hearing, excerpts of which I discussed in my own analysis post on that hearing. I now feel it necessary to reproduce the most important of those excerpts:

… high-end journalism - that which acquires essential information about our government and society in the first place -- is a profession; it requires daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contending. For a relatively brief period in American history - no more than the last fifty years or so - a lot of smart and talented people were paid a living wage and benefits to challenge the unrestrained authority of our institutions and to hold those institutions to task. Modern newspaper reporting was the hardest and in some ways most gratifying job I ever had. I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying or from whom they are withholding information.

In other words the Stanford panel amounts to little more than the latest round of rituals in what Andrew Keen has called "the cult of the amateur," with no regard to any of the implications that emerge from such cult worship, particularly those pertaining to the nature of work itself. Yesterday I referred to "our innovation-hungry culture" without considering that what amounts to a prevailing culture is little more than the gross amplification of a mindless cult. Today I seem to resorting to stronger language. Perhaps by tomorrow I shall have decided that the word "innovation" deserves the same proscription as any of the obscenities currently taken by Blogger as grounds for abuse of the service they provide!

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