A Brief Essay on the Origins of Authority in Journalism
A few months ago at PressThink, I published Voice of San Diego’s guidelines for new reporters. They say:
Write with authority. You earn the right to write with authority by reporting and working hard.
Which is true. The way I like to phrase that idea is in the title of this post: “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.” This, I think, is the original source–headwaters–for all forms of authority in journalism.
By “authority” I simply mean the right to be listened to, a legitimate claim on public attention. You begin to have authority as a journalist not when you work for a brand name in news (although that helps) but when you offer a report that users cannot easily get on their own. If we go way back in journalism history, the first people to claim this kind of authority were those who could say… I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.
Perhaps the first people to be employed as professional correspondents were letter writers hired by rich merchants and bankers in early modern Europe. These correspondents lived in cities from which the banker or businessman needed regular reports. Their letters conveyed much the same news that a trader would want today: prices, conditions for trade and transport, what the local authorities were up to, rumors of war, court news and gossip, business disruptions. The most famous examples are the newsletters written for the House of Fugger, perhaps the most powerful banking family in Germany in the 15th and 16th centuries.
Here’s a sample:
Insolvencies at the Exchange at Antwerp
From Antwerp, 9th December 1570
Here the Genoese have arranged a competition at the Exchange & because of it two Genoese houses have gone bankrupt this week: they are Giovanni Grimaldi & then Pedro Francesco et Pedro Christophoro Spinola, who have behind them all the Germans here. It has always been regarded as a well-established business, & has long traded in this town. The creditors kept of good cheer. It is, however, to be feared that it may be with this as with other bankruptcies. At first there is ever enough on hand, but in the end no-one can obtain anything…
This bankruptcy has put an end to credit among the Genoese. Within the space of a few years many bankruptcies have taken place, but I have never seen such excitement on the Exchange as there is regarding this. They are owing a large amount, but no-one knows how much, for their books have not as yet been balanced.
It will probably not end with these two, but they will drag others down of their nation with them.
What is this, but a dispatch from 442 years ago on the difficulty of valuing toxic assets? “I’m in Antwerp. You, the Fugger family, are not. Let me tell you about two big bankruptcies.” Reporting! At a minimum, it involves a correspondent, an event, and a report, but also—and this is the part we tend to overlook–recipients who have a stake but can’t be there themselves to see how their investment fares.
In my example from 1570, that part is played by the Fugger family. It’s tempting to say that they were among the founders of modern journalism, but we can’t for a simple reason. The newsletters they paid for didn’t circulate publicly. They weren’t meant for public eyes at all. They were a private intelligence network for a rich family that had a stake in Antwerp’s business climate but couldn’t be there. The public, you see, hadn’t been invented yet. The advantage of this system is that the correspondent with a single house to inform is easily instructable.
Here’s the example I would use in the classroom to make certain that every student understood what I meant by, “I’m there, you’re not…” It’s a clip of Edward R. Murrow reporting from London for American audiences during the Battle of Britain in 1940. Indulge me for a moment (actually a minute, thirty-nine seconds) and listen to it. Go on, I’ll wait…
Murrow is there. We’re not. His report has an unmistakeable authority, not only because we can hear the air raid sirens and feel the urgency in the air, not only because he’s good at telling us what he sees, but also because we feel for the Londoners and don’t want Hitler’s Luftwaffe to win. That’s our stake. Yet we’re an ocean away. Like the House of Fugger we can’t know how our investment is faring without a correspondent who is on scene and able to tell us.
Shared language, shared assumptions, a similar-enough consciousness across reporter and recipients: these make possible the depiction of reality. Had Murrow been there and said: “Tonight in London, God is crying. Here, listen…” the sound of air raid sirens would still be heard, but his report would shatter in the clash of worldviews: secular vs. religious.
So there’s a lot packed into that plea: Let me tell you about it. No one can be informed without her consent. Information requires for its transmittal the user’s grant of attention. Among the prerequisites for reporting to take its course is a shared world, a weave of common assumptions, connecting reporter to recipient. If that breaks apart so does the possibility of there being any journalism. There has to be some stake, or who cares about a bankruptcy in Antwerp? And it has to be difficult to know how our investment is faring without the work of the reporter.
I’m sorry if some of this seems obvious. It’s like the frame around a painting. Obvious, but if you’ve been staring at the painting for a good while, maybe not.
I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it… is headwaters for a whole system of authority in journalism. Further downstream we find:
“I reviewed those documents, you couldn’t–you were too busy raising your family, trying to pay the mortgage–so let me tell you what they show.” (Link.)
“We interviewed the workers who were on that drilling platform when it exploded, you didn’t, let us tell you what they said.” (Link.)
“I found out how that bill died in Congress. You didn’t have access to the key players. Let me tell you what I learned.” (Link.)
“We fact checked that statement, you didn’t, let us tell you what we found.” (Link.)
As Voice of San Diego said, authority originates in hard work–reporting!–but also in the conditions that prevent the users from doing that work themselves. We can describe those conditions in either spatial or temporal terms. “I’m there, you’re not…” is a more spatial image. “I took the time to look through those documents, you couldn’t…” is temporal. Something I teach my students: the simplest way to create value in journalism is to save the user time. As in, “I give you the most interesting parts of the Facebook IPO so you don’t have to dig through it.”
Let’s bring my story up to the present. “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it” isn’t limited to professional journalists. That should be obvious to everyone by now. The tools for staking this kind of claim have been distributed to the population at large. So rather than decide, “who’s a journalist?” we should focus on who’s doing the work. Who’s there when we’re not and ready to tell us about it?
Tim Pool has made a name for himself by live streaming the action around the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York City. He simply carries his camera into events and shows what’s going on: live, over the web, for free. He sometimes has a few hundred viewers and at other times his audience swells to 10,000 or more. Starting at about 28:05 in the clip below, Pool comes upon people letting the air out of the tires of New York City police cars, which of course is an illegal and provocative act. He is met with hostility and attempts to keep him from broadcasting, but he continues to broadcast.
As he later told On The Media, “When we’re at something as pivotal, something as historic as that night, the camera’s not going off. Especially since we had a very large amount of people watching, and I have an obligation to those people to let them know what’s happening.”
In other words, “I’m there, you’re not and no one’s going to stop me from telling you about it.”