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January 14, 2004

Why I Love the Adopt-a-Reporter Scheme. Why I Dread It.

A weblog devoted to watching the work of a journalist is democracy in action. It is bound to be educational, for the watcher and perhaps for the journalist who is watched. But there are reasons to worry.

All the ideas, examples and disputes are here: Adopt a Campaign Journalist in 2004. It has more than thirty links. I stayed out of that post because I wanted to know what others think. So… no illustrations in this one. Use the links and fill in any details you need.

Why I Love It.

It’s practical. People can do it, and they don’t need permission or oversight. Tracking a reporter’s work is a good thing for a very simple reason. It’s participation in the presidential campaign, and in politics. It’s doing something useful with your own civic time. It’s what Thomas Jefferson, the botanist, did— observe nature, and record what you find. Except that culture is our nature now and media a surrounding sea. So we observe this, and try to sense its motion.

Observation is a discipline. It takes care. It improves with practice. It brings your mind down to the sensuous details of the case. (For example, a journalist’s tone.) Tracking reportage will, I think, be an education for those who do it— in fact, it is journalism education, in which all enrolled are to be self-taught by November. I am strongly in favor of that.

It was always the smart argument for pursuing better turnout in elections. (And not everyone in politics wants more voters, remember that!) Voting tutors people in democracy. It threatens to give them a stake. Every way of getting involved in a campaign has this effect, when there’s something real in the balance. Tracking a reporter forces ideas about the press through the test of enriched experience. That’s good for citizenship. But not citizenship as a duty. Not even as a right. Citizenship as a kind of public intervention is involved.

Adopting a campaign reporter, and writing a weblog about the work that reporter does, is involving yourself in the press. And you can never predict how involving things will evolve. But that’s not why I love it. I love it because it’s one-to-one. That cosmic abstraction, The Media, which has no earthly address, is reckoned with by reduction to a single journalist, somebody who, far from the news wars, might be eating a sandwich when you are eating your sandwich. This gives the activity human scale, even if it’s antagonistic. Our expanding culture of complaint about Big Media could use more of that— a human scale.

Unless you intend for your tracking site to suck, you are going to spend some part of your day thinking about the correspondent under scrutiny. Even if you and the journalist seem to dwell in different worlds and disagree on important things, one of those important things is the public conversation about news—the journalism we have, the journalism we need—to which you and “your” journalist will both contribute. In parallel, as it were.

And besides all that, a good tracking site is a credit to journalism, and to the work of the reporter tracked. It elevates the importance of both.

Why I Dread It.

I have this question, seriously intended: What makes media hate any better, any more “okay,” than other forms of politicized hating? Nothing in my field of vision. Check yours.

Don’t tell me it doesn’t exist—floating hatred for The Media, (which has no address) addressed to individuals who in someone’s eyes represent “the” media—because I can find occasional evidence for it in comments here at PressThink. You can find it at a million Web pages in public view. Bipartisan evidence, too. Is the contempt deserved? A lot of intelligent people think so, and they act on that belief. They write of it. They sometimes commune around it. Is there contempt for an intelligent lay public by the press? There is, but right now I am not discussing it.

Now it’s ridiculous to put a powerful system like the American news media in the position of victim, and I intend nothing like that. Nothing at all. But I am curious why we don’t see hatred of the press as taking some toll on the hater. (We do when it’s racism.) In this sense I dread the adopt-a-journalist scheme, even though I support the idea, because I think dread is a fit response when people who are in some quarters hated—perhaps symbolically so—are being carefully “watched” in those quarters. And I am not talking of stalking, either, which should not be instantly dismissed or casually predicted.

Look, there is a big difference between calling out The Daily Howler (a site I admire) and serving up today’s “media whore.” The difference is in the drift toward rhetorical violence, which cannot be prevented but ought to be questioned at opportune times. This is one. Adopt-a-journalist could, in individual cases, drift that way; and to say that such sites would never succeed—because they are bound to be shoddy, unreliable—is naive at this point in Net time. They can succeed by providing 100 people with fresh material for resentment, a transaction common on the Internet. They can succeed by taking an inherently political subject—the performance of the press during an election—and politicizing it, but in the extreme.

Yet that is no reason not to do it. It is just one man’s word of caution. Finally, an apt passage from the historian and social critic Christopher Lasch (1932-1994):

If we insist on argument as the essence of education, we will defend democracy not as the most efficient but as the most educational form of government, one that extends the circle of debate as widely as possible, and thus forces all citizens to articulate their views, to put their views at risk, and to cultivate the virtues of eloquence, clarity of thought and expression, and sound judgment.

Practical Question: What should be the minimum standards for a good reporter’s watch weblog? If you have an idea, hit the comment button and speak.

For the background, see PressThink, Adopt a Campaign Journalist in 2004: The Drift of a Suggestion

Also see my comments here. (Ex Lion Tamer.)

Halley Suitt comments on this post. “Bloggers instituting Adopt-A-Reporter is to journalists as Expedia, Travelocity and Orbitz were to your travel agent, a transparency mechanism. The big difference being what’s a stake…”

eRobin of Fact-esque, a watch site, says: “I have another concern though and that is that as a watcher, I’ll start to feel embedded in Mr. Woodward’s work and lose objectivity on that front, which wouldn’t be good either. I already think of Mr. Woodward as ‘my guy’ and am excited when I find a piece he’s written. Frankly, and I think many watchers feel this way too, I’m happier when I can say that the work he’s done is good. It’s better for my soul and better for the country.”

Al Giordano of Big, Left, Outside replies to this post: “The legitimate resentment by the public about the media is not anything like ‘hate speech’ or ‘race hate.’ It’s more along the lines of the ‘hatred’ that great Authentic Journalist Thomas Paine cited when he wrote ‘God put hatred in men’s hearts for good reason: to ensure justice.’ It’s something more akin to class consciousness than bigotry.”

Related: Ron Rosenbaum in the New York Observer: “The new realm of the ‘blogosphere’ has focused attention in a more vigilant way on the errors made by ‘dead-tree journalists’—and by other bloggers as well. The ease of making corrections on the Web has made the exposure of errors made by dead-tree journalists—and the pressure to correct those errors—greater than ever.”

Dave Winer jumps in: “It would be much better to track the candidates by issues, rather than watching reporters. What you’ll find out when you track reporters is that they aren’t doing their job. This has very limited value. Instead we should do the job they should be doing, raise the bar, give them an incentive to do their job.”

DocBug reacts: “Bloggers should adopt any combination of candidate, journalist, or issue to watch, and then send those posts to the appropriate aggregator(s).”

Dimmy Karras adds: “Anyone who, like me, feels motivated to bother doing something like this probably sees a purpose in it, and that purpose is probably born both of frustration with the press to begin with and a recognition of the importance of a well-functioning press in a democracy too.”

Patrica Wilson Watch is criticized by a journalist, and the criticism has an effect. (Ryan Pitts, Dead Parrot Society.)

See Comments section for remarks by Al Giordano, Ex Lion Tamer, Ryan Pitts, Craig Kingscott, Seth Finkelstein, Jay Rosen, Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle and others.

A watch weblog for Washington Post reporter Dan Balz debuts: balzblog.

The Nedra Pickler Watch (AP Reporter.) What a Pickler.

Jay McCarthy reviews the discussion and comments: “It is my opinion that the best way to compete with journalism and the media is to replace it. As Jello Biafra once said: ‘Don’t hate the media, become the media!’”

Listen to a segment about adopt-a-journalist on NPR’s “On the Media,” via WNYC, Jan. 24-25. With host Brooke Gladstone, and guests Jody Wilgoren of the New York Times, Jay Rosen, and Tim Withers, founder of the Wilgoren Watch.

Downbrigade News expresses doubts on the adopt-a-reporter scheme: “Come on! That’s the most invasive, repugnant and counterproductive idea we have heard in the ‘Sphere since paid subscriptions! Who appointed us to be the Thought Police? And Who is Going to Monitor the Monitors? What a misguided, uncivil and rude waste of time!”

Adopting a tounge-in-cheek name, Scribestalker explains the approach: “My primary focus will be on Tim Russert of Meet the Press fame. I will also keep an Eye on Katharine Seelye of the New York Times since no one has taken her and her record during the 2000 election makes her a very good candidate for watching. Who am I? Just a voracious News consumer who claims the right to comment on the quality of the the news presented today.”

Noah Shacthman of Wired magazine reports on adopt-a-reporter.

Steve Outing of Poynter Institute offers his view: “what troubled me most about the blogger critics currently operating is their tendency to remain anonymous.”

Mark Gaser of Online Journalism Review did a reported feature on watch weblogs. (Feb. 11, 2004)

Posted by Jay Rosen at January 14, 2004 9:51 AM