SJW Watch

The Changing Definition of Journalism

Editors Note: This piece was written in the immediate aftermath of the Cernovich interview on 60 Minutes. Originally it was to be a point/counterpoint article with Ralph from The Ralph Retort writing the rebuttal. Since he has no time for this for a while I am running it without the counterpoint. I will be accepting submissions from anyone who wants to write a dissension. 

Who. What. When. Where. Why?

Of the five W’s, the alleged foundation of all journalistically crafted stories, which one would you describe as subjective? Which one is open to any kind of interpretation?

Traditionally it can only be the “why” that is capable of generating questions, sometimes even unanswerable ones, in a news story. After all, “why” can very often refer to the motives of “who” and as we all know that’s not always a clear and easy reveal.

So why do the five W’s even exist? Well, simply put they’ve been a standard in rhetorical interpretations for centuries, dating back before Cicero. But specifically as they relate to journalism those five questions are the gold standard without any one of which you have an incomplete story that is capable of misleading or, more seriously if you’re an editor, boring the reader.

But that’s old-school thinking. That’s the way dinosaur journalists think. The old, dying guard are supposed to concern themselves with accuracy, with integrity and with staying beholden to the ancient rhetorical rules. The new breed of journalists must focus themselves on speed. After all who will want to read your story if someone else identified the five Ws an hour before you did? And in this instant news digital age if you get one of the Ws wrong, big deal, just go back and make an edit right? The important thing is eyeballs on the page as quickly as possible.

Well, what if you don’t have the speed. What if, in the vicious 24-hour news cycle, with internet journalists, podcasts, social media and citizen journalists it dawns on you that the elusive “scoop” basically doesn’t exist anymore? Well, then you just add opinion and interpretation to the mix. Your own unique take on a story. The five Ws all dressed up and sexy. But is that journalism? What is new journalism and does anyone practice the craft as it was meant to be in this digital age?

As I watched Cernovich on 60 Minutes last week the question I asked myself most often wasn’t “Is Mike Cernovich really a journalist?” it was “are either of these guys really journalists?”

Consider the question that Scott Pelley asked Mr. Cernovich that is being largely cited as the turning point of the interview. The question that resulted in this exchange:

Pelley: [Reading a headline from Danger & Play] Hillary Clinton has Parkinsons disease. You don’t think that’s misleading?

Cernovich: No.

Cernovich: She had a seizure and froze up walking to her motorcade…

Pelley: Well. She had pneumonia, I mean…

Cernovich: How do you know? Who told you that?

Pelley: Well, the campaign told us that.

Cernovich: Why would you trust the campaign?

 

Indeed Mr. Cernovich. And in this exchange you find the heart of the problem when you try to define modern journalism. What is it? Who practices it? In my opinion neither of these guys who, powerhouses in their own right for sure, represent very different segments of the political and professional spectrum.

Is getting a physician who has never examined a patient to declare she has Parkinsons journalism?

You have Parkinsons!

You have Parkinsons!

 

Ok, you have a who, a what and a when in the story. Those are facts. Who? Hillary. What? She fainted. When? Walking to her motorcade. Indisputable.

But that pesky why is what neither one got right. They left it open to interpretation, there’s no hard evidence for either story. Mr. Cernovich, representing the new breed of alleged journalists answers one of the five Ws with unfounded speculation. Mr. Pelley, representing the alleged “real” journalists answers the question with blind belief in a press statement. In some ways Pelley’s statement is even more egregious because in taking the campaigns word for it blindly he and his fellow “journalists” ignored the fact the Hillary has a rather troubling and well documented history of passing out. At least Cernovich came up with a story that tried to address the central question: Why does Hillary keep fainting?

 

Imagine Woodward or Bernstein saying: Nixon wasn’t involved in Watergate.

 

Interviewer: How do you know?

 

Woodward/Bernstein: The White House told us.

 

Sounds absurd doesn’t it? Because digging, probing, researching, formulating the right questions and asking the right people is how you find the truth of a story. Not reading a press release and blindly believing it. And also not speculating from your keyboard, ensconced in your home office, and adding your own interpretations to available data. That’s not journalism.

Journalism is an arduous, often risky, process of deduction and fact checking. Nobody in that interview can claim they engaged in journalism in answering the central question. Some of the Ws are missing and some that are there aren’t even verified.

And so I asked Ralph to do this little point/counterpoint because I want to have a discussion about who is, and what is, journalism. I have not seen Ralphs response yet but my assertion is going to be that Paul Joseph Watson, Cernovich and whatever other blogger you can name that is sort of morphing the definition of “journalist” should not be considered such. And I am guessing Ralph will be disagreeing with me.

In the early days of journalism there was a simple need to fill. Information was out there, people needed it, newspapers provided it. All they had to do was report on who said or did what, and do so accurately, to fulfill their most basic duty. If you lived in the south in the 40’s and wanted to know about a speech the President gave in New York that morning you waited until the next days paper and “read all about it” as they say. The need for journalists was quite obvious.

But what about today? We live in a time where information is more readily available than ever before. I don’t need a reporter to tell me about a speech the next day, I can see it in real time on any of a hundred outlets. And so news organizations slowly adapted to a new landscape, or business model if you will, where they had to provide something other than raw data: Analysis.

That’s where the money is today. But where is the line drawn? What is reporting, what is speculating and what is analyzing? And how do those 3 things blend together to make modern journalism.

I submit to you this: They don’t. And they shouldn’t.

There is no doubt in my mind that modern journalism, as a revered and respected profession, is full of rot. The entire system and practice of it is in need of desperate, and quick, reform. But not wholesale replacement and not by people who aren’t really practicing journalism. It needs a back to basics approach.

There’s plenty of room for guys like Sean Hannity who offer opinion and analysis because, despite what you’ve heard, they aren’t the problem. They aren’t the problem because they identify themselves. Listen to Hannity for a week and chances are good you’ll hear him say hes “not a journalist” because he knows and is upfront about his role.

The cancer at the center of journalism are the guys who wear the “reporter” badge but behave like Hannity. The resulting slanted coverage isn’t only tiresome, it’s a betrayal.

Consider that late last year a fake dossier of alleged Trump transgressions in Russia, the infamous golden shower report, was widely and breathlessly reported by both “real” and “new” journalistic organizations. Why? Because the time it would take to thoroughly vet and verify would cost them the scoop. Who wants to read such a juicy news story 48 hours later? Better to jump in with your peers and apologize later right? Much easier to run the story that everyone else is rather than be the one outlet that didn’t. After all, nobody is going to pat you on the back for a story you DIDN’T run are they. Nobody gets a Pulitzer for restraint.

But even during that firestorm of nonsense there was one small voice trying to get people to calm down and verify, like real journalists should, but he was ignored. Nobody heard legendary journalist Bob Woodward did they? How many times did most of you read this quote:

“So Trump’s right to be upset about that,” Woodward said. “And I think if you look at the real chronology and the nature of the battle here, those intelligence chiefs who were the best we’ve had, who were terrific and have done great work, made a mistake here. And when people make mistakes, they should apologize.”

Be honest, you didn’t see this, or his prior warnings, prominently featured anywhere did you. Because the Trump dossier satisfied 3 requirements that have no place in journalism when considering a stories merits:

 

  1. It vilified a person the press already hated
  2. It was an attention-grabbing headline
  3. It offered cover for the ensuing retraction because everyone ran it

 

So I agree, journalism is on life support and in need of reform. The 60 Minutes exchange, the dossier story, just 2 examples of the rot in the profession.

Where I disagree is in the need to for a total replacement and for who, exactly, is that replacement. What people often call the “new media” or the “new journalists” aren’t journalists at all. They’re news aggregators who literally stand on the shoulders of real journalists who are out there covering stories. They sit home using Google and clip a piece of information from one reporter, another piece from a different story and so on. Then they glue all the various pieces together, add in opinion or, in some cases, salacious speculation and call it a story instead of what it is: A Frankenstein monster made of facts they didn’t gather and held together by assertions they can’t verify. That’s not journalism and it never will be.

In closing I leave you with one last example. If Pizzagate was a story in the 50’s how do you think it would have been handled? Just picture these scenarios and tell me which one is real journalism:

A reporter walks into his editors office and he says “Chief, have I got a story for you. It’s about a pedophile ring. Its widespread and it runs all the way to the top.”

 

Editor: Do you have any hard proof?

 

Reporter: Not a shred.

 

Editor: Run it! Front page tomorrow.

 

 

 

OR

 

A reporter walks into his editors office and he says “Chief, have I got a story for you. It’s about a pedophile ring. Its widespread and it runs all the way to the top.”

The editor would then say “Let me see what you’ve got,” and plop down behind his desk. Together the two of them would examine the data. As the sun went down they’d order some takeout, eat it on the office floor surrounded by mountains of printed documents and coffee stained notes, and continue talking it out.

The editor and the reporter would both conclude there isn’t yet enough evidence to run the story. I’m not saying they would let it die, but they would dig. Investigate. Ask questions. And then dig some more. It might take a year to get there, but if there was enough circumstantial evidence to justify it they would just keep digging until there was something concrete. Then, and only then, would that story see the light of day. Not before corroboration and facts, not before all five Ws were answered and verified would a single word hit the paper.

That’s journalism. If you create an article that has the five Ws but the recipe subtracts evidence and adds a dash of speculation then what comes out of the oven isn’t going to be a news story. It’s that simple.

Journalism is in trouble, but bloggers aren’t the new media and they aren’t the answer. In fact, they cant even exist without the work done by the old media. A back to basics approach is the only viable solution. Everything else is entertaining and provocative, but its not journalism.

 

    

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