Toppling the Berlins Wall…

Haven’t done a decent fisk for a while, but then I spotted Marcel Berlins reworking a few tired old arguments and decided that this is too good an chance to get my eye back in to be passing it up…

Over to you, Marcel.

Time magazine’s “Person of the Year” awards were started in 1927, since when there have been some pretty dodgy winners, Hitler among them.

Actually, Marcel, I wouldn’t say that Hitler was a ‘dodgy’ winner of Time’s ‘Person of the Year’ award. A dodgy character, certainly, but then Times’ criteria (which you acknowledge later) is the person who, in their opinion, “most affected the news and our lives, and embodied what was important about the year, for better or for worse”. Hitler definitely falls into the ‘for worse’ category but as he picked up his ‘award’ in 1938, a year in which he did rather dominate the international stage/news agenda.

Leaving aside the little matter of Godwin’s Law for a moment, I get the impression that Marcel really doesn’t like this year’s winner and has got it into his head that bringing up dear old Adolf might just be a subtle way of trashing Time’s choice right from the off.

Isn’t that just a tad intellectually dishonest?

They clearly should not be taken too seriously, other than as a subject of mild end-of-the-year controversy. The 2006 winner, though, has troubled me for reasons that go well beyond mere dissatisfaction with the verdict. The winner was “You” – that is, us – and to make sure we got the message, when we look at Time we see ourselves in a mirror embedded in the cover. Actually, the You is not quite all of us, merely those of us who have contributed to the growth of the internet and all it contains – for instance blogging and participating in YouTube, MySpace or other “user-generated” sites.

Ah, now I see the problem. Time have only gone and given the award to a bunch of plebs. Incidentally, aside from knocking out a few articles for CiF, just how much has Marcel actually contributed to the growth of the internet and is that really sufficient for him to justifiably include himself in ‘us’?

Perhaps he could chuck a link in to his YouTube video collection or MySpace site in the next article? No? Don’t think so? Now you do surprise me…

A spokesman for Time admitted that, had they chosen a single person who “most affected the news and our lives, and embodied what was important about the year, for better or for worse”, it would have been President Ahmadinejad of Iran. But a lot of people would have been upset at that decision, so they plumped for the feel-good group, You.

Can’t say I’m a big fan of President Ahmadinejad, personally, but then as with Hitler he does seem to fit pretty well into Time’s criteria and he wouldn’t be the first controversial figure to be chosen. Aside from Adolf, ‘Uncle’ Joe Stalin picked up the award twice (the first time in 1939, a year in which his personal ‘highlights’ were the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and invading Finland), as did Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 .

Time did tone it down a bit after Khomeini as it stirred up enough of a row to cost them a few subscriptions – although just to prove that you really can’t please everyone, they also got a fair old hammering for choosing Rudolf Giuliani in 2001, against a body of opinion that held that a strict application of their criteria should have resulted in the award going to Osama Bin Laden.

Again, the relevance of Time’s number two choice is a bit unclear, unless, like the opening reference to Hitler, its just another cheap shot at Time.

Time’s editor, Richard Stengel, commented: “You, not us, are transforming the information age.” That was a profoundly depressing statement, as was the fuller citation explaining the reasoning: “For seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game …”

Profoundly depressing statement? Ooh, I wonder what’s coming next? Could it be yet another journalistic bout of whinging about us nassssty little bloggerses?

I think it just might…

The misguided and misleading use of the term democracy in this context, and the manifestly incorrect claim that You have conquered the professionals, are bad enough. But my main objection is wider. The Time award and the reasons for it promote what I believe to be one of the most pernicious and disturbing philosophies of our age, extolling the cult of what is often patronisingly referred to as the “ordinary” person.

Well, okay. Maybe talk of a ‘digital democracy’ is stretching the point a little too far – the Internet is rather more a Hayekian self-organising system, so some sort of variation on the general theme of catallaxy might have been a touch more appropriate. Nevertheless the general tone here does seem to be more or less along the lines of ‘Why the fuck have they given the award to a bunch of fucking plebs?’.

I emphasise immediately that if I use the word “ordinary”, it is in quotation marks – it is not to suggest inferiority or any comparison with an elite of extraordinary people. The philosophy I object to, which the internet’s information explosion has fostered, is that the “ordinary” person is as – no, even more – important to the dissemination of knowledge, information and opinion as the expert or the professional.

Ah, now. But here’s the rub. You see a lot of us ‘ordinary people’ out here blogging away on the internet are, to varying degrees, both experts and professionals in our own personal field. For the most part that field doesn’t happen to be journalism, but that doesn’t make us any less expert or professional that someone like, say, Marcel Berlins.

You see, it’s becoming more and more apparent as blogging develops that what’s really getting to piss off the professional commentariat is the fact that quite a few bloggers are actually experts and professionals, and worse still they’re experts and professionals in fields that journalists insist on commenting on even though, much of the time, they haven’t got the first fucking clue what they’re on about – isn’t that right, Polly?
Leaving the ‘hard news’ journos to one side and out of this more or less completely (as that’s a very different discipline) a fair proportion of those writing regular columns for newspapers do seem to spend much of their time writing about things that they are singularly unqualified to talk about. Check out Mad Mel Phillip’s site and take a look at her articles about MMR and autism, every single one of which is a complete load of half-witted, uninformed and ill-educated bollocks. You couldn’t find anyone less qualified to talk about the alleged (but completely unfounded) ‘link’ between MMR and autism if you borrowed one of Sting’s Amazonian mates, the one’s with the CD embedded in the their lower lip. And yet on the strength of being a journalist (allegedly), she appears to think that she’s eminently qualified to comment on the subject, even if everything she’s written about it is complete and utter crap.

Back in the days when the dead tree press really was king, columnists could pretty much get away with that kind of thing without too much fear of getting ‘called’ on it – after all the only public reply/rebuttal they ever got was through letters to the editor, which can always be chosen selectively and very carefully ‘blue-pencilled’ so as not to cause too much embarrassment if a columnist got their facts/opinions completely wrong.

Courtesy of the internet, things are now very different, Feedback (and blowback) is almost immediate and there’s no kindly sub-editor to get in the way and shield hapless columnists from the slings and arrows of outrageous sweary bloggers.

That’s what blogging does that so completely winds-up some hacks, it completely fucks with their self-assumed status as an ‘authority’ on whatever it is that they happen to be writing about at a particular time by confronting them with ‘ordinary people’ whose skills, background and experience make them far more of a legitimate authority than some journalists could ever hope to aspire to.

Little wonder, then, that they’re always fucking whinging about us.

It manifests itself in various ways, here and elsewhere. South Korea has a news website, OhMyNews, that uses “citizen journalists” to provide most of its material. It has some 40,000 non-professional contributors; they are, of course, untested and unvetted, their submissions unchecked, their motives unknown. The reader of the website can have no idea about the accuracy of the information on it; yet it is one of the main sources of news for South Koreans.

Yadda, yadda. yadda. Here comes the speech about journalistic standards and ethics yet again…

No. Sorry. Tell a lie, Marcel’s held back at the last minute and decided not to bore us shitless with all that after all.

Because, or course, journalists never, ever get stories completely wrong, do they? They don’t behave unethically or illegally, and they certainly don’t fabricate stories out of nothing.

Citizen journalism, such as it is, works pretty well for two main reasons.

First, it tends to pick up on news stories, and particularly local ones, that just don’t get picked up at all by mainstream newspapers and media outlets. Sites like ‘OhMyNews‘ (it’s usual to include a link when referring to a website, Marcel, as a matter of courtesy) might aggregate together a lot of stories from a lot of different sources but much of the content is highly localised and fills various niches in the ‘market’ for news that the mainstream press tend to ignore.

The second reason it works is due to the immediacy with which readers are able to respond to and comment on news stories  posted on these sites. Post something that is factually incorrect or obviously biased, and it won’t be long before someone shows up to point out your failings. Stories are discussed, debated and dissected, errors and biases noted and pointed out and, if the blogger in question is at all mindful of ‘netiquette’ and the widely accepted standards on online ethics, mistakes are corrected (and properly acknowledged) an art that seems lost on even the most august of news sources – and if not, there’s usually always someone around to provide an alternative ‘take’ on the story.

Whoops – that’s a bit more self-organisation going on there, isn’t it.

Nor can entrants into the social network sites for the young, such as MySpace, have any real idea of the genuineness, truthfulness or hidden motives of their fellow joiners; and it is impossible for the web’s operators to monitor who registers. Not surprisingly, meetings engineered over the internet have caused anguish and tragedy as well as happy associations.

Oh puh-leeze. Even by the piss-poor standards of some of the earlier comments in this article, dragging Hitler and Ahmedinajad in proceedings, this is an ill-concealed low-blow. Yes, Marcels, we know all about things like ‘grooming’ etc. but just because a minority abuse and misuse the medium it doesn’t follow that the medium is all bad or without value.

Then there is the proliferation of – though they don’t yet call them that yet – “citizen reviewers”. Hardly a newspaper here (this one included) is free from readers’ opinions on the holidays they have taken, restaurants they have dined at, films they have seen and so on; it seems that no cultural or leisure activity escapes being assessed by “ordinary” people.

A few months ago the usually reliable Routier Guide to good, honest, affordable English eateries folded. People were no longer buying such guides, we were told. Instead, they searched for places to eat on various websites carrying accounts by people who had chosen to make public their dining experiences. A favourable opinion on a website by, say, a DS of Bristol (who may well be, a recent survey revealed, the chef using a pseudonym) takes precedence over a balanced review of a meal by a trained, independent inspector.

Two points to make here. While it probably is a shame that the Routier Guide has folded (can’t say I ever looked at one, so its difficult to judge) at least some, if not most of the fault for that lies with its own failure to adapt to the changing nature of the market – with more and more people using the internet to scout out their eateries, the question has to be asked as to exactly what, if anything, the published of this guide did to respond to those changes.

In any case, the mere fact that a paper-based guide compiled by ‘trained, independent assessors’ has been pushed out existence by online consumer review sites doesn’t, on its own, prove that consumers have developed a preference for the inexpert opinions of ordinary folk at the expense of genuine expertise. A major part of the attraction of online ‘consumer’ sites is their immediacy – if you suddenly and spontaneously decide that you’d like to eat out one evening, even the best written and most expert guide book is only going to be of use if you actually own a copy, and you can’t seriously think that people really end up thinking, ‘Mmm. I fancy eating out, tonight… must pop out to a book shop and get a decent guide’. Whereas, of course, if you do spontaneously decide to eat out, it takes a matter of minutes to find a consumer site on the internet, get a list of nearby restaurants and get a few opinions as to what the eatery may be like.

Speed, convenience and accessibility are at least as important as expertise in such situations – perhaps more important as the demise of the Routier Guide seems ot suggest.

How long can it be before professional critics and reviewers – people who know what they are talking about, who perhaps have had years of experience in their field – are jettisoned in favour of “ordinary” people’s views? After all, the expert costs money; the amateurs come free. Why do we need our own film/restaurant/book reviewers when hundreds of cinemagoers/diners/readers are only too anxious to tell us what they think?

Who knows? To be honest, if an ‘expert’ is good enough (i.e. genuinely an expert) then there should always be a market for their expertise – the two different strands of reviewing are not, as I see it, mutually exclusive. They provide very different things such that one, at the very least, supplements the other, if not complements it.

But Time’s assertion that those working for nothing are “beating the pros at their own game” is nonsense. They are providing a different service, an opinion based not on expertise and experience, but on their less tutored feelings. I am not saying that the amateur’s view is less legitimate than the professional’s; but it should not be given some sort of mystical prominence.

Except that its not ‘nonsense’ – bloggers very often do beat ‘the pros’ at their own game, but it all depends on who the blogger is, who the ‘pro’ is and what the ‘game’ is. If anything, blogging, in particular, actually puts a premium on expertise when it comes to certain types of journalism and journalists, especially those who specialise in review, criticism and commentary. Where once, journalists could blithely step right out of their fields of expertise and talks utter bollocks with little or no fear of censure, these days they stray from the path of their own ability at their own peril – just ask Polly Toynbee.

No, don’t ask her. Just say the words ‘Tim Worstall‘ and it she starts to twitch or develop a nervous tic then you’ll know I’m right.

That’s the part of this equation that some journalists get – mainly those that have thier own blogs rather that one provided for them by a media organisation – and some don’t. Many of the ‘ordinary people’ out here are anything but ordinary, they have skills, knowledge and expertise in their particular field to a level that many journalists could barely dream of aspiring to let alone attain.

Journalists who play to their real strengths and demonstrate genuine expertise have little or nothing to fear from bloggers and the whole ‘information revolution’ – if anything, their interaction with blogs and bloggers is likely only to enhance their reputation as their work garners approving ‘reviews’ from bloggers who are, likewise, acknowledged amongst their own online communities as possessing considerable expertise – its only those hacks who think they can still get away with ‘mugging it’ on the premise that their audience is too dumb to spot their own lack of ability and/or efforts to research their work that have anything genuinely to fear.

Looking at the information revolution as a whole, the greater participation by You has been a benefit. But the movement is losing its sense of proportion. It has become too successful, too cocky. The role played by those who possess special talents, skills, knowledge, training and creativity should not be undermined by the desire to include the remainder.

There my be the old bout of unseemly hubris floating around, although no more, I’d argue, that one would find on a daily basis in most tabloid newspapers, and I have to agree that ‘the role played by those who possess special talents, skills, knowledge, training and creativity should not be undermined’… not only by the ‘desire to include the remainder’ but also by the arrogance of professional journalists who seem all too ready and willing to forget just how many of us bloggers also possess our own special talents, skills, knowledge, training and creativity.

6 thoughts on “Toppling the Berlins Wall…

  1. In all this, he appears to have somehow got the idea that people read blogs, social network sites etc, becuase they are written by non-professionals.

    Which is plainly bollocks.

    I read these kind of sites because I either a) know the person, and can judge their opinions through the filter of personal knowledge or b) I know of their reputation and can judge their opinions through that filter.

    In other words, I have a standard of trust that I can apply to online services that is unavailable to me with traditional columns: can anyone give me a good reason for the columnists having a column? They’re not even entertaining…

  2. I think the classic example of a journalist talking out of their comfort zone was Madeleine Bunting on the Enlightenment. I was frankly astonished at the quality of the posts she got…these folk really, really knew what they were talking about.

    Along the lines of:

    “As someone who has made it my life work to study the early years of the Enlightenment, I really feel I need to take issue with some of the authors assumptions…” Followed by a demolition job.

    You are right when you say journalists may be skilled communicators, but they know very little. Which puts them in the same boat as the rest of us non-experts, I think.

    It might be radical, but I wish experts learned the minimal skills of most print commentators, rather than have their views spun by PR guys and journalists.

    The suppression of news these days seems to have almost as high a priority as it’s disemmination. Polonium 210 off the stage, Johns Hopkins study buried, etc, etc. Next week, no-one will even remember what the acronym ISG stood for.

  3. ISG stands for International Socialist Group, any fool knows that!

    Well, I used to think the blogospheric conversation was a bit obsessive and detached from reality, but it’s really improved over the last year and a half or so. The diversity of opinions is a good corrective to the narrowness seen in the mainstream press and it helps break the dominance of right-wing media moguls like Rothermere and Murdoch over the commentariat.

  4. Unity,
    I know this has nothing to do with the above fisking, but you have been silent on the possibility of asking David Cameron questions over at WebCameron. This is a golden opportunity for well-organised bloggers to get some real answers out of DC. At the moment, I have a question up for voting (a restatement of one Guido asked last week). Maybe you could see your way to giving this question a bit of publicity in the hope of making DC give some real answers? The question is question is to be found at:



  5. As you so rightly point out, those professionals, experts and ‘tutored’ paragons of journalism out there, have absolutely nothing to fear from the rise of the Internet and Blogging.

    Could it be that the journalist in question is concerned that his own credentials may be tested and that if found wanting, he may end up seeking a career in the productive sector of the economy?

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