“Each form can spur the other, keep it honest.”
This is the sketch I am going to present in a few hours to the Public Knowledge Forum at the Sydney Opera House in Sydney, Australia. Because it is only a sketch, it leaves out a lot of detail and of course over-simplifies in the interest of avoiding another boring conference presentation.
The free press gods initially gave us the old testament. Then the news testament rose and took over for about 90 years. Recently the old testament has roared back to life and now we have something close to parity or détente, in which it is recognized that we need both. “Each form can spur the other, keep it honest,” as New York Times columnist Roger Cohen recently put it.
In old testament journalism, “the public” is the people who gather around the news to talk about it. Political argument and the informational goods delivered by journalism — “what’s happening” and how we should think about it — are so intertwined that it makes little sense to separate the two. A representative figure from the eighteen century would be the great pamphleteer Tom Paine, the trouble-making democrat who tried to rouse public opinion against arbitrary power.
Today Glenn Greenwald, recently of The Guardian, works the same way. He’s a trouble-maker who tries to rouse public opinion against the misuse of power. In his journalism there is no natural separation between political argument and information about what’s happening. Roger Cohen spoke of colleagues like former Times editor Bill Keller as “old school journalists” who observe the “traditional” claims to impartiality but in my view this incorrect. Greenwald’s is the old school, and New York Times journalism is the more recent tradition.
The events by which Edward Snowden came to trust Greenwald over the New York Times tell us a great deal about the return of old testament influence amid the problems with new testament journalism. But we are getting ahead our story.
In old testament journalism financial support is difficult to obtain, opposition is intense, competition is fierce, the authorities are frequently upset with the trouble-makers in the press, popularity balloons and contracts with events and revelations. It is a wild ride and a precarious way of life.
Old testament journalism began in the U.S. with the campaign to unite the colonies against British rule. A close cousin to freedom of speech, the old testament was memorialized in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution— which of course protects other forms, as well. It had a diminished presence in the 20th century as new testament journalism rose to power and the old became a sub-current. But it never stopped flowing and today it draws new life from the internet.
In new testament journalism, “the public” is the people who are outsiders to political events— and to power. They are busy, preoccupied with making a living, raising their kids and attending to other spectacles, and so they need to be kept informed by specialists in news.
Salvation, in new testament journalism, is achieved by separating facts and values, symbolized of course by the division between the news and opinion pages in American newspapers, and by the imperative of “impartiality” encoded into the BBC in Britain and the ABC in Australia. Who is the Tom Paine of the BBC? There is none and there never has been. It’s against their religion.
New testament journalism is a 20th century thing. It is associated with the doctrine of “objectivity” but even more with the rise of professionalism in the press, which began with the first movements toward schools of journalism around 1908, followed by professional associations in the 1920s and 1930s.
In new testament journalism, the media’s financial security is the norm, made possible by high barriers to entry and large capital costs required to deliver news. The new testament style is risk-adverse because the news delivery franchise is so valuable. The mission is not to move public opinion but to maintain trust or, to put it another way, to protect the brand. Audiences tend to be stable. The authorities learn to regularize their relationship with the journalists. Professionalism in journalism and broadcasting interlocks well with professionalism in politics and other knowledge fields. Thus, the rolodex of reliable experts.
New testament journalism also has its heroic forms, especially investigative journalism. Its representative figure is Bob Woodward of the Washington Post (or, in the mythic version, Robert Redford) and the symbolic high point is the resignation of Richard Nixon in August 1974, in part because of the Post’s relentless reporting. Recalling those events, new testament sages talk of “shoe leather reporting” when they want to explain what virtue in journalism is.
Old testament journalism treats everyone as a participant in the great conversation of democracy. New testament recognizes that there are insiders and outsiders, players and spectators. It tries to mediate between them.
In new testament pressthink, people need the facts first. After they are informed by facts they can develop opinions and “make up their own minds.” In old testament logic, people first need to join the argument. Then they will feel the need to keep themselves informed.
New testament journalism is strong on reliability, predictability, civility, professionalism and the maintenance of reputation over time, which has obvious benefits for advertisers and for political coalitions expected to vote to maintain taxpayer subsidies to the BBC and the ABC. Old testament journalism is strong on participation and mobilization. It is more risk-tolerant, less likely to censor itself to avoid giving offense. It gives the individual journalist a voice and identity.
Old testament journalism has vices too. It is financially precarious and so it can often be bought off. It goes to extremes more often and may distort the picture by neglecting the inconvenient fact. In old testament journalism the constant danger is that the truthtelling will decay into propaganda and news will become comfort food for loyalists. In the new testament style, the danger is that truthtelling will decay into “he said, she said” and the dialect of insiders that I have called “the savvy.”
Today, well-known troubles with the business model have weakened new testament journalism by eroding monopolies and opening the field to lower-cost competitors. The internet solves the distribution-of-news problem for all players. As my colleague Clay Shirky has said, it changes publishing from an industry or a job to a button. This has allowed the old testament forms to gain new life. Other weaknesses in new testament traditions have been exposed, as well, such as the intimidation of the press after September 11 and the failure to detect a faulty case for war in Iraq in 2003.
A kind of new testament fundamentalism common in journalism from the 1970s to the 1990s held form through the early years of blogging in this century. It felt scorn for the more opinionated style and ridiculed its followers as “echo chambers.” It defined itself as “the traditional” and dismissed everyone else as marginal. This was arrogance born of monopoly.
But then new testament journalists started blogging themselves and more recently they have taken to social media with genuine enthusiasm. Today they are not as confident that they have all the answers. They know that their business model is broken. They can see the advantages in personal voice and persuasive power that accrues to the Glenn Greenwalds and other practitioners of the personal franchise model in news. They understand that the people formerly known as the audience want to participate more in the news and that the insiders are less trusted than ever.
All of these forces are pushing new testament journalism toward reconciliation and détente with the old, a symptom of which is this exchange between former New York Times editor Bill Keller and Greenwald. Keller says:
I find much to admire in America’s history of crusading journalists, from the pamphleteers to the muckrakers to the New Journalism of the ’60s to the best of today’s activist bloggers. At their best, their fortitude and passion have stimulated genuine reforms (often, as in the Progressive Era, thanks to the journalists’ “political relationships with governments”). I hope the coverage you led of the National Security Agency’s hyperactive surveillance will lead to some overdue accountability.
But the kind of journalism The Times and other mainstream news organizations practice — at their best — includes an awful lot to be proud of…
True. Neither form has a monopoly on virtue. Great journalism, as Greenwald often says, can come from both traditions. I’m Jewish, and so more of an old testament guy. But I too think we need both, plus future forms that combine the two in novel fashion. The messiah hasn’t come yet.