Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Open source, open tsoris*

A gaggle of journalism's elite is convening at Harvard this weekend to agonize over the credibility of the media in the age of the blog -- as though they actually could do anything about it.

If these wise men and wiser women weren't able to stop Jayson Blair and the CBS Memogate crew from polluting Official Media's punchbowl, how are they going to housebreak the growing, global mass of anonymous bloggers? And, with all due respect, who put the gaggle in charge, anyway?

The valedictory for this not-so-modest undertaking was sounded by the thoughtful NYU prof Jay Rosen, who rightfully observed that "professional journalism is no longer sovereign over territory it once easily controlled."

Now that contemporary technology has endowed an infinite number of homo erecti with the ability to define and opine on events as they see fit, how is anyone going to enforce standards for open-source news?

Sure, you can suggest that bloggers attribute and verify information. You can urge journalists to take blog tidbits seriously, and, when taking them, to forthrightly credit the source. But the outcome will depend on the skills, integrity and intelligence of each individual practitioner. Odds are, everyone will not play nice.

If you look at the history of the mass media, you will find the press has been used more often as a bully pulpit than a holy one. When political parties and press lords lorded it over the newsrooms in this country, most journalists rivaled Karl Rove in their ability to dish invective and deceit. Perceptive readers, though undoubtedly amused, were not likely to confuse the news with the truth.

It really is a latter-day, mostly American, conceit that journalists are objective arbiters of fact and opinion.

Only in recent times has this once-scruffy trade been professionalized to the point that its practitioners actually have college degrees, mortgages and 401(k) plans. Sadly for my esteemed friends and colleagues, their professional sovereignty, though fun while it lasted, was more of a pleasant interlude than a lifelong entitlement. Now that airline pilots, software engineers, printers, physicians, retail clerks, teachers, garment workers and countless others get no respect, what makes you think journalists are to be spared?

Meantime, back at the worldwide info-scrum, truth-seeking will become an increasingly iterative, messy and non-linear process, forcing readers to resort to their own wits to separate fact from friction. Open source for them will be more like open tsoris*.

* tsoris n : (Yiddish) trouble and suffering


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