In Praise of Gatekeepers

Of Blogging, New Media and the Internet: It’s Time We Start Discussing the Social Implications of Progress

At a Sept. 28-29 conference on “New Media and the U.S. Image,”  hosted by the Public Affairs Office of the U.S. Embassy at the Amerikahaus in Vienna, Webster media communications head Michael Freund joined a panel that included David Carlson, professor of new media journalism at the University of Florida in Gainesville, and Garrett Graff, editor at large of the Washingtonian and the first blogger accredited to cover a White House press briefing.  Freund contributed the following comments to a discussion on new media and current developments in the delivery of news and ideas.

Prof. Michael Freund: “We need filters to navigate in a sea of data, to distinguish between garbage and content.“ | Photo: Claudia Burris

I want to start with something I recently read, in a print medium, by an author who quotes another author who paraphrases an artist who died 19 years ago. The paraphrase is: “On the Web, everybody will be famous to fifteen people.”

The artist of course was Andy Warhol. The person paraphrasing him is David Weinberger, an advocate of new-media journalism. The person quoting him is Nicholas Lemann, dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. I believe that this information is correct. Why? Because the print medium I read it in is The New Yorker, and I tend to have some confidence in the accuracy of what’s in this magazine. It is famous for its fact-checking department, which to me is a necessary, though not sufficient ingredient of a news medium. (The New Yorker even gets its German right, which cannot be said for example about William Safire, the ex-language pope of The New York Times.)

Let us now take a step back and consider what we are talking about. The topic is “We Are Not All Watching The Same News” (though I take professional and personal exception to the term „watching“ – as if television were the only or the best news source). And the implicit subtitle is: Aren’t Blogs The New Way Of Journalism, threatening the established news outfits and enabling a new and improved form of reporting?

Yes, they are, argue the proponents of the blogosphere. They speak of citizen journalism, of an uninhibited flow of information, of a medium without gatekeepers, that is, pundits who prevent the rest of us to do what we supposedly all can do, namely tell it like it is.

Behind this – and I will, from now on, quote some of what we heard last night at the kick-off event – lies the assumption that the digital revolution is changing everything, and mostly for the better. Let us take a somewhat closer look at this, and let us keep in mind that reliable news is what we ultimately want.

Yesterday we heard for example that the digital revolution – in this particular case a combination of cellphone, GPS, camera and some other intelligence not yet fully developed – will tell us what building stands in front of us in a foreign city or how we get to it. The motto here being: You will never have to ask directions again.

By the same token, we will have a refrigerator telling us that we need to buy milk, underwear that will signal to us that it is dirty, a guide that will tell us what restaurants are around the corner without us having to see them ourselves, and uncounted other amenities that will make our lives much more automatic and amazingly high-tech.

Add to this the mother of all Internet fantasies, namely the possibility to order pizza without having to take an eye off the monitor, and the other panacea of the Internet, that is, great anonymous online sex where you can pretend that you are not a grown-up male but an adolescent sheep. (Actually, as we heard, you will not even have to type in “pizza.”

With voice recognition software the computer will recognize that you said “pizza” and will forward the order completely by itself. Never mind the consequences for the obesity rate of this amazingly high-tech civilization.)

Anyway, add all this up, and what you have is, in my opinion, the likelihood of a socially retarded existence deprived of most sensory pleasures except seeing things on a screen and exercising your index finger on a mouse. (Just the idea that you do not even try to speak to a human being in a foreign country, and that you do not choose a restaurant by what you see, hear and smell on location but by checking some paid advertisement on a cellphone screen strikes me as an incredible deprivation and a big cultural step backwards.)

No matter. As we heard last night: “Today’s developments are only the beginning.” Of course this is true of any development at any time. The real question is: How good is the development, and where does it lead us? Instead of an answer, we hear that whatever it is, it is going to be 100 times faster in the near future.

In Vienna, at the previous turn of the century, issues were raised and studied concerning our needs, the social implications of progress, the cost of the repression of the senses, the difficulties of predicting the future with scientific certainty, the human side of political economy, and more.

It is amazing how little this enters today’s discussions, and how much gets lost, when all we do is bow at the altar of the digital god.

Which leads me back to the main topic, the blogs. They, too, are part of this amazing progress we are witnessing, and they too, of course, are only the beginning. The latest figures say that there are about twelve million bloggers in the US alone. It was said yesterday that only very few consider themselves in the news reporting business.

Well, the information I have is different. According to Nicholas Lemann who has this from the Pew Internet & American Life Project (not exactly a crackpot garage outfit), one third of these twelve million consider blogging a form of journalism. That makes four million newly minted reporters just like that, without any annoying professional education.

Without, as it were, “gatekeepers” in the middle – another term that came up several times last night, and always in a derogatory way. Gatekeepers are those elite people in the established media who keep the rest of us from distributing information as we deem right.

But no more, since the blogging revolution is on the way. We do have a lot more information literally at our fingertips. And we get it straight from the source.

One example we heard: Through podcasts, politicians can now circumvent critical journalists and get their message across straight to their audience. Well, keep in mind that not only did the novels Brave New World and, even more, 1984 anticipate this. The likes of Mussolini, Stalin, Kim Il Sung and others have been practicing it, while politicians in more democratic countries are trying out other ways to circumvent critical questions.

My question is: Where is the progress?

Another thing frequently mentioned in the context of blogging and, more general, the digital revolution is that they turn the business model completely upside down. No middleman, no centralized structure, no I-don’t-know-what-else. I am not an economist nor do I have an MBA.

But I cannot fail to see a few things: that successful business models in the online sphere rely as much on advertising as the established media did and still do; that those who make it, live just as much in a cutthroat competitive world; that people are still fired in these businesses, in fact more than ever before.

So I wonder what is so radically different.

Back to blogging: One thing that was not mentioned once by the defenders of the brave new blogging world is fact-checking. This, however, is the crucial criterion without which there can be no serious discussion of the subject. No one is so naïve as to believe in an absolute objectivity of reporting. But there are degrees of approximation.

The reputation of certain news sources has to do with experience, with history, with observable performance.

No such thing exists for the overwhelming majority of bloggers. Most of it is Rants & Raves, as Wired magazine once called a nice provocative column. Interesting stuff perhaps, but do I have any idea whether it’s true? I don’t.

The possibilities in the new world of information, we hear, are of course “unlimited”. This is of course not true. They are quite limited by the following factors:

Language: If you don’t speak it, you don’t know. Don’t tell me about amazing Chinese blogs if you have no idea what they say.

Money: The information is certainly not free. You need a computer, you need electricity, you have to pay a provider, and you will have to pay premium prices for the fast net. Corporations are already figuring out ways to make people pay more for better access. The good old democratic dream of the Electronic Frontier Foundation may soon be dead.

And the third and perhaps most important limiting factor: Time. Even in the world of bits a day has only 24 hours. Who can make use of 200 TV programs, twelve million bloggers or the 1,000 radio stations that the new Internet radio sets offer us?

I am not against alternative news sources or Internet progress. I like to download from the Apple Music Store (not to mention other sources of music). I use Wikipedia (with the necessary measure of caution), Google or the Falter Restaurant Guide. I follow certain interesting online news outfits such as Slate. I get my daily dose of Doonesbury online.

I occasionally enjoy the kind of nut blog that attracts the 15 people with whom it is famous. I appreciate bloggers who report live from crisis areas. I subscribe to several podcasts and get interesting news about news for example from the weekly “On the Media” on NPR every Friday, on my iPod a few hours later.

And yes, I can imagine a world without paper as the carrier medium for important news sources.

But I definitely need and want filters. I need them to navigate in a sea of data, to distinguish between garbage and content, between verifiable sources and hearsay.

I want gatekeepers. I am one myself, as editor at Der Standard. For 13 years my job has been to make sure that what goes into the paper meets some professional standard. There have always been many citizens at the gate. They offered me their reports about what is terrible in the world, including their remedies.

They offered me poetry, obviously without ever having checked what is published in the paper. I have read a lot of manuscripts, and believe me, they were rarely a pretty read.

Some of these authors may now be in the blogosphere, and I am happy for them. If I want to know more about what is going on in this sphere – if I want to know without having to browse through terabytes of chats, postings, raves and rants – then I quite happily turn to five well-researched and beautifully written pages in The New Yorker on the subject: August 7, 2006, pp44-49.

It’s on the record. It’s on paper.

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