In a Monday piece for the New York Times, media writer David Carr looks at how the ongoing revelations about the NSA and its surveillance of U.S. citizens have turned journalists against each other, with people like David Gregory of NBC questioning whether Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald deserves to be considered a “real” journalist, because of his dedication to leakers like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning (now known as Chelsea) and the cause they represent.
But this is about far more than just the NSA story: beneath the surface — and increasingly above the surface — what we are seeing is an immune-system response from the journalism establishment, or what Clay Shirky has called the “shock of inclusion” caused by the rise of a networked fourth estate.
This can be seen in a number of ways, both large and small: it’s fairly overt in the case of comments like Gregory’s, or when Time correspondent Michael Grunwald muses on Twitter about looking forward to a drone strike taking out Julian Assange — a man that even former NYT executive editor Bill Keller has agreed deserves to be protected by the First Amendment as much as any mainstream journalist. But it’s also visible in more subtle ways, as when Carr’s own newspaper and others choose to refer to Greenwald as a “blogger” rather than a journalist.
A culture clash — us vs. them
Carr even contributes his own personal vignette highlighting the cultural response from the insular journalistic mainstream, when he describes a “very proper lunch” he attended in the British countryside along with Julian Assange, and his uncomfortable response when the WikiLeaks founder said that he thought the primary requirements for being a journalist at the New York Times were “the ability to lie and obfuscate.”
The unavoidable sense one gets — not just from Carr’s piece, but from all the other responses by Gregory and others to the NSA story and to WikiLeaks, and even to events like Reddit’s attempt to contribute to the reporting around the Boston bombings — is of an “us vs. them” mentality, in which bloggers like Greenwald or more extreme personalities like Julian Assange are treated like invaders storming the barricades of the journalism establishment. As Carr puts it:
“The larger sense I get from the criticism directed at Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald is one of distaste — that they aren’t what we think of as real journalists. Instead, they represent an emerging Fifth Estate composed of leakers, activists and bloggers who threaten those of us in traditional media. They are, as one says, not like us.”
The shock of inclusion
Media theorist Clay Shirky described this phenomenon in a 2010 essay, in which he called this kind of response from the media establishment the “shock of inclusion.” His examples were things like the use of blogs as a reporting tool for citizen journalists during the demonstrations in Iran, and the London bombings of 2005, but his overall point is the same: that the media industry is struggling to handle the same onslaught of “user-generated content” as many other industries (such as the photography business), and it is mostly failing.
In some cases, that content is coming from people committing random acts of journalist using Twitter, or from Reddit during the bombings in Boston, but it is also coming from new entities like WikiLeaks, which journalism professor Jay Rosen has called a “stateless news organization,” and from hybrid blogger/journalists like Greenwald — who has no journalism degree and didn’t work his way up through the traditional establishment, but is currently beating many traditional journalists at their own game. As Shirky describes it:
What’s going away is a world where the news was only made by professionals, and consumed by amateurs who couldn’t do much to produce news on their own, or to distribute it, or to act on it en masse. We are living through a shock of inclusion, where the former audience is becoming increasingly intertwined with all aspects of news, as sources who can go public on their own, as groups that can both create and comb through data in ways the professionals can’t, as disseminators and syndicators and users of the news.
It’s not about journalists, but journalism
Shirky also notes that it isn’t just Twitter or the sources going direct (to use blogging pioneer Dave Winer’s phrase), but entire new enterprises like Huffington Post or BuzzFeed that look at journalism and media in different ways — ways that may resonate more with readers. As he puts it:
“The shock of inclusion is “coming from the outside in, driven not by the professionals formerly in charge, but by the former audience. It is also being driven by new news entrepreneurs, the men and women who want to build new kinds of sites and services that assume, rather than ignore, the free time and talents of the public.”
I think we should also remember that what’s at stake isn’t just the future of journalism or media, or academic questions about who is a journalist: in an environment where David Gregory is asking why Glenn Greenwald shouldn’t be charged with a crime for “aiding and abetting” Edward Snowden, and where the Guardian writer’s partner is being detained and searched by British police for carrying information about the NSA leaks, there is a very real risk attached to what we call journalism today — and therefore attached to everyone who practices it, regardless of whether they are traditional journalists or not.
More than anything, we — not just journalists or the media but society as a whole — need to support and defend journalism and what it means, not just specific journalists or specific media entities. The First Amendment and what it stands for is too important to let the debate devolve into an industry bun fight over who is a “real” journalist and who isn’t.
Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Vladimir Melnik and Flickr user Carolina Georgatou