Tuesday, June 10, 2008

A watershed moment in the public square

Any news junkies reading this will have heard of Mayhill Fowler and her second big buzz-making blog post of the 2008 presidential campaign. Fowler touched off a lot of indignation because she got Bill Clinton, on tape, venting about a Vanity Fair article that was downright mean to his wife. Some journalists think Fowler took unfair advantage by not saying who she was when she blurted out her question in the crowd where Clinton was shaking hands. They see in this case another item for their brief on the ethical failings of bloggers. I think they miss the point.

Indulge me while I quote myself, from Jay Rosen's PressThink:
I think the watershed of 2008 is not so much what Ms. Fowler and the other journalistic irregulars are doing as it is the unprecedented reach and speed of ANYONE with news to share, because of the tools now readily available.
Today, the press is not just those affiliated with a printing plant or a broadcast newsroom, but can be anyone inclined to share the news and who has a browser, a DSL connection and a cell phone. The implications are huge for how we learn the news. And the change is not in the ethics involved.

There has long been a code of fair play in the press. One of the rules was that when you asked a question you said who you represented. (Maybe Sam Donaldson didn't always, but he didn't have to because politicians all knew nobody else could shout that loudly in a crowded room.) But that didn't mean the press avoided asking and writing what happened in places it wasn't invited to, or what newsmakers told confidantes that they wouldn't have told a reporter directly. We simply asked our sources, and sometimes we even said who our sources were.

The big change demonstrated by Fowler's quotes of Bill Clinton and, earlier, of Barack Obama on the thinking of small-town Pennsylvanians, is that John Q. Citizen doesn't need a press card to put news out where the whole world can read and hear it. Just as surely as the rotary printing press made penny newspapers accessible to workers in all our great cities, the Internet and our many digital toys take the news further, faster than newsmakers are quite prepared for. This speed and access are democratizing the ways we share news, and learn it.

Nobody said democracy was tidy. But it sure can be fun. We'll just have to have some new rules about getting news, only this time, it may take longer to write them. They surely won't be written in the editorial conference rooms of old.