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March 04, 2005


Jay Rosen

This is my favorite column of yours so far. And I think you hit upon something very real. I have found it to be the case, not in some "general" way but only in certain ways (which I am always trying to describe) that journalists choose against being curious.

Or their practices discriminate against it. The reporting of the pack is an organized conspiracy against the individual curiosity of the reporters in the pack. And what other kind of curiosity is there, than an individual's?

I have not found professional journalists to be, in general, curious about the Web. Those who are wonder, as much as I do, why more of their colleagues aren't. To me it is something that has to be explained, because this is directly in the journalist's self-interest to be very curious about the Web and especially the possibility that it would sprout new forms of journalism and a new class of competitors. So a lack of interest in your own future is psychologically quite complicated.

Now here is one idea. I wouldn't say it explains the lack of curiosity, but it extends by one level our description of how it happens.

As a non-member of the newsroom tribe interacting with that tribe and its ideas, which means conversing with thousands of journalists in hundreds of settings, many of them on their "turf," meaning in the newsroom itself, I have found it to be on the whole true that if a journalist says, in a self-report, that he is skeptical about my idea of good journalism, it also means he is not curious about it, and cannot be brought to find out more about it.

However, what this journalist will do, and gladly, in response to my presentation is furnish one or several bullet-proof arguments that he imagines so soundly "defeat" my proposal that it's not worth talking further after the swift and terrible sword has come down. This, as you might imagine, is more or less as a college sophmore would act in a late night dorm debate.

Why would skepticism be associated with a lack of curiosity? Because skepticism in journalism is held as a shield from the evidence that your skepticism might not be warranted in this case, and then what are you going to do?

And since it is good in journalism to be skeptical... well you can see the rest.

Doug McGill

I ran across a quote of Albert Einstein recently in which he described the Princeton campus as “a wonderful piece of earth, and at the same time an exceedingly amusing ceremonial backwater of tiny spindle-shanked demigods.”

There's something of that in journalism these days, and the spindliness of those shanks is showing up in sharp relief against a medium (the Internet) that is in many ways running away with the journalism profession.

When the shift from typewriters to word processors happened at The New York Times, some city desk reporters, instead of trying to figure out those newfangled thangs, ran to pay phones in Times Square to call their stories in. There's a lot of that going on in newsrooms today, vis a vis the Net.

Just think how long blogs have been around, four or five years at least. It took the MSM, as usual, several years to get around to looking at it. They had to wait until it was HUGE to write a word about it. By that time, it was crashing over their heads and possibly their futures. Didn't they see it happening before?

That long delay of SEVERAL YEARS doesn't say much about nimbleness or curiousity of the MSM, does it?

What other gigantic waves are heading our way are being entirely unreported? And going unreported for the worst of reasons, e.g., because George W. Bush hasn't mentioned it, or Alan Greenspan hasn't mentioned it, because it's not at the top of the Bestseller List, won an Oscar, racked up a billion in sales, etc.

I fear that journalism is now suffering the fate of the political profession -- good people, smart people, deeply curious people don't want a thing to do with it. A smart young person who is deeply curious about the world can too easily see, for example, that if their deepest wish in a profession is that it afford them the chance in life to go really deep, to explore, to expose and to bring to light, there are just too many damn obstacles to that in journalism today.

Meanwhile, again with a parallel to politics, the wrong people are getting into journalism. They aren't the explorer types, the ones who want to use the English language to ask great questions and make deep investigations. They aren't deeply curious people. They are people who want to be players. They want the power. Not the knowledge, the power. It's a corrupting influence on the profession, I believe.

Also, if skepticism is so high a value in journalism, how come so few journalists apply skepticism to their own theories and narratives?

I saw in Bob Manoff's essay on the Bollinger proposal
(a couple of years old by now I guess), his reference to Tony Lukas' theory of "the last phone call." It's true, it's all about that last call and a reporter's willingness and his eagerness to make it.

That skepticism is used as an excuse not to ask that last question, is surely another misuse of a great idea and a great word, similar to how the much-discussed "objectivity" has been hijacked.

Jay Rosen

For me the great text illustrating all of this (for the Web era) is this interview with John Markoff, the technology reporter for the New York Times. It's because of the attitude.

Among other "achievements" was that he boxed himself in with a high-handed and dismissive view of weblogging and what it was. He could have been the New York Times first serious reportorial blogger; they would have handed him the keys to out Gillmor Dan. Instead of leading his profession and carving out a place in journalism history I(and Times history), he paraded his superiority to bloggers, and psychologically, I believe, trapped himself when it came to using the form. (Howard Kurtz is good for a contrast.)

Pick up on Markoff's attitude in this selection. Is this man curious? And keep in mind: he's the technology reporter for the flagship in the fleet.

"And, you know, give it five or 10 years and see if any institutions emerge out of it. It's possible that in the end there may be some small subset of people who find a livelihood out of it and that the rest of the people will find that, you know, keeping their diaries online is not the most useful thing to with their time. When I tell that to people … they get very angry with me. ... I also like to tell them, when they (ask) when I'm going to start a blog, and then, 'Oh, I already have a blog, it's www.nytimes.com, don't you read it?'"

Anna Haynes

URL for the above-referenced Markoff interview is

Martha Vickery

Well, I will have to tell you about my adventures trying to be a reporter in North Korea one day.

It is not impossible to be a reporter there. However, it is difficult. Regardless of its ease or difficulty, I still don't excuse the pat, stereotyped and trite expressions that many mainstream journalists use in describing the people of North Korea, their leader (crazy, bizarre, etc.), the nature of the country itself ("the world's most insular and mysterious country," etc.) For someone who tries to read a lot about what is up with Korea-U.S. relations, it becomes completely nauseating.

I think this article is a good observation about how so many journalists truly do not want to be confused with the facts. There is a whole jumbled up conspiracy or reasons of why that is. They have limited access to a subject; they are brainwashed by one another (i.e., that descriptions of Kim Jong-Il must be prefaced by some kind of adjective like "bizarre" because everyone else describes him that way), or because they don't care about their topic therefore don't have any original thoughts on it.

Also, because the reader is not discerning. In our world of reality TV, everyone is so ready to be amused that they don't even care if they are hearing the truth.

Sorry to be depressing. It is a depressing topic, but one that needs to be talked about.

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