The other afternoon, I clicked onto the Web site YouTube.com. True to its motto, "Broadcast Yourself," the site allows people to upload their own videos on a nearly infinite array of subjects. I happened to be looking for clips about American soldiers in Iraq, and a quick search summoned up more than a thousand hits.
In just the first half-dozen, I saw a wide array of images – roadside bombs exploding, tanks rolling across the desert, lines of artillerymen firing, flag-draped coffins, an injured GI being evacuated, a bored GI playing air guitar on a shovel as he did a Chuck Berry duck-walk beside a coil of barbed wire. The videos had been set to music ranging from rap to acapella gospel to thrash metal to Pink Floyd.
As both a journalist and a citizen, I valued these insights into a controversial war. I valued them as testimony, not unlike the V-mail my uncle sent to his family during his three years in World War II, not unlike the fuzzy home movies of John Kerry's Swift Boat crew during Vietnam. Where I differ from a growing number of scholars and media critics, however, is in considering the uploads on YouTube to be journalism.
One of the trendiest terms of the moment is "citizen journalist." It refers to anybody with a video camera or cell-phone or blog who posts photographs, live-action film, or written reports on news events. I first became aware of the phenomenon during the terrorist attacks on London subways and buses last summer, when traditional news organizations as well as informal Web sites utilized the images and photos supplied by witnesses. Since then, the scenario has repeated itself with Hurricane Katrina, among other major news events. MSNBC, just to cite one example, invites visitors to its Web site to "Be A Citizen Journalist."
To its proponents, citizen journalism represents a democratization of media, a shattering of the power of the unelected elite, a blow against the empire of Big Brother. Citizen journalism does not merely challenge the notion of professionalism in journalism but completely circumvents it. It is journalism according to the ethos of indie rock 'n' roll: Do It Yourself.
For precisely such reasons, I despair over the movement's current cachet. However wrapped in idealism, citizen journalism forms part of a larger attempt to degrade, even to disenfranchise journalism as practiced by trained professionals. As I said before, I appreciate the access that citizen journalism provides to first-hand accounts of major events. Yet I recognize those accounts are less journalism than the raw material, generated by amateurs, that a trained, skilled journalist should know how to weigh, analyze, describe, and explain.
I know full well how hard it is to defend traditional journalism today. The right and the left join in a critique that says there is no such thing as an unbiased, nonpartisan journalist and that only the despicable MSM, mainstream media, refuse to admit it. The failures of established news organizations justifiably lead to public skepticism. I am thinking less of the whole-cloth fabrications of fabulists like Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley or Stephen Glass than of the devastating near-misses, the almost-correct articles or broadcasts undermined by a fatal error – "Sixty Minutes'" discredited report on President Bush's National Guard service, Newsweek's retraced account of American interrogators at Guanatanmo Bay flushing a Koran down the toilet, The New York Times' misidentification of a man who indeed has been imprisoned and tortured at Abu Ghraib as the man in the notorious picture of a hooded inmate connected to electrical wires. When we fall short of our own professional standards, we lend support to the cynical or naïve presumption that journalism is something anybody can do.
Historically, it is true, American journalism was an occupation rather than a profession, a job that required no formal education, much less a license. In its origins, American journalism was flagrantly opinionated and openly partisan, much like Fox News or Air America today. The concept of an educated, skilled journalist, who goes out into the field to report what he or she finds there, arose only in the last century, as Michael Schudson points out in his indispensable book Discovering The News. So with the advent of cable television's hundreds of narrowly niched channels, with the explosion of the Internet and its mantra that "information wants to be free," traditional journalism makes a ready and appealing target.
Instead of providing the ultimate marketplace of ideas, however, cable TV and the Internet have become the ultimate amen corner, where nobody ever need encounter an opinion, much less a fact, that runs counter to what he or she already believes. To treat an amateur as equally credible as a professional, to congratulate the wannabe with the title "journalist," is only to further erode the line between raw material and finished product. For those people who believe that editorial gate-keeping is a form of censorship, if not mind control, then I suppose the absence of any mediating intelligence is considered a good thing.
When traditional, reportorial journalism seems so besieged, I like to remember that National Public Radio's audience has grown from a few hundred thousand to 28 million in the past 25 years, that Bloomberg Business News has established itself as a respected worldwide news organization in barely half that time, that USA Today has built its circulation at the same time it has raised its journalistic performance. More than ever, at least some of the public recognizes, you need to know the difference between the amateur, however well-meaning, and the pro.