The Inevitable Result of New Journalism

Remember our arguments last spring about “the View from Nowhere?”  That growing idea among journalists (especially those of the younger persuasion) that we would all be better off if journalists cared less about “the self-deluded smugness” of getting objective facts correct and more about wearing their heart on their sleeve, building their brand, and “being part of the conversation” rather than working to keep themselves above the fray?

Enter Charles Johnson:

The Washington Post:

He represents a new breed of news hound: part troll, part provocateur, part bully for profit, and fully independent. In photographs, he adopts the glower of an anti-establishment rabble-rouser… His formula for news seems to work something like this: home in on the most emotionally-charged story of the moment — whether that’s Ferguson or Eric Garner or campus rape — and stake out the most divisive position possible, amassing allies and enemies in equal number…You’re a modern Joan of Arc,” one admirer told Johnson on Sunday. “Doing God’s work even when the big names say you’re the devil.” Another called him “a real American hero.”

The New York Times:

His name came out of nowhere and now seems to be everywhere. When the consumer Internet first unfolded, there was much talk about millions of new voices blooming. Mr. Johnson is one of those flowers. His tactics may have as much in common with ultimate fighting as journalism, but that doesn’t mean he is not part of the conversation.

The Daliy Caller:

Johnson’s penchant for being a do-gooder doesn’t stop with bathroom poop. He recalls a “minority scholarship guy” from another building who he found in his own vomit in another campus bathroom. Johnson called the ambulance. “I think he had his stomach pumped and went on medical leave,” he said.

All over the blogosphere, everyone is lining up to make Charles Johnson the folk hero (or villain) of our time — breathlessly wondering if he’ll go into politics, comparing Johnson’s life to story to Anakin Skywalker’s, or suppressing a giggle-fit at the notion that we almost met in real life, as if Johnson were some kind of bad boy heart throb on the cover of Tiger Beat.  (And who knows? With the way things are going, he might well be soon enough.)

And what, exactly, is it that Johnson has accomplished as a journalist that has allowed him to be the Next Big Thing?

Well, here’s a partial list:[1]

He’s “scooped” the Washington press corp by reporting the story that Obama is gay. (Obama isn’t, and Johnson never provided anything but the accusation.)  He “scooped” the East Coast press by discovering that Corey Booker does not live in Newark. (Booker actually does.)  He paid a black pastor to falsely claim he had been paid to change votes in Mississippi so that he could then “break” that story. He “broke” the story that unarmed Ferguson teen Michael Brown had previously been arrested for 2nd degree murder. (Not even remotely true.)   He posted the street addresses of people he had “discovered” were carrying ebola. (They didn’t, and the addresses weren’t correct anyway.)  He published photos of the woman from the Rolling Stone UVA fiasco. (It was the wrong woman.) He “broke” the story that a New York Times reporter he was having a spat with once posed for Playgirl. (Aside from not being true, a wondrously bizarre false accusation to use to get back at someone.) He caused a mini-firestorm by “reporting” that NJ Senator Bob Mendoza had paid for underage prostitutes.  (The story was a complete fabrication.)  He has also reported the home addresses of reporters who wrote sympathetically about Michael Brown (in an attempt to serve those reporters vigilante justice at the hands of the mob), posted the name of a reported rape victim (again, with the intention of submitting that person for vigilante justice at the hands of the mob), hired people to get photos of a politician’s institutionalized mother so voters could mock her, and hypothesized that a black man was a criminal by showing a video of him rapping.

Again, I want to emphasize that the above is a partial list  — a very partial list.

And I bring all of this up because I submit to you that Charles Johnson’s success (and make no mistake, he is wildly successful) isn’t happening despite this new trend among journalists that having a point of view, building your brand, and being a part of the conversation (and not above it) somehow creates a morally superior form of journalism than does simply working getting your facts straight — it’s a direct result.

And to all of those journalist/bloggers out there who crap on trying to be objective and getting your facts straight over “taking sides” and “brand building,” I would recommend taking a long look at Johnson.  Because he isn’t just playing your game by your rules.

He’s playing it better than you are.

 

 

[1] I’m barely okay with linking to places like the Post, the Times, and Mother Jones as they indulge in their latest Bad Boy crush, in part because I think they should all be properly embarrassed by it.  But I draw the line at linking to Johnson’s material directly.

If you really doubt I’m being honest, you can feel free to google all of this s**t.  It will come up in your search engines with no effort.

 

[Picture: Journalists at a press conference, via Wikipedia.]

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30 thoughts on “The Inevitable Result of New Journalism

  1. I guess i’ll be the first to point out a person can have a point of view, be honest about their ideology and also get their facts straight and not be a complete scumbag. That Chuckie J is choosing to lie and be a scumbag is his business model, that says more about his consumers then anything else.

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    • I also suspect that he is a little nuts. But I still think you’re wrong.

      We’ve always had nuts, and we’ve always had nuts using their own mediums to try to explain to the world their nutty, sensational, easily-disproven conspiracy theories. But at least to my memory, those people back then never had the Post, the Times, and (let’s face it) basically everyone else writing about them. And as I noted in the OP, even when those other journalists are being critical (and pretty much everyone is), they’re doing so in a fawning way. (Look at those quotes above!)

      And really, what is the difference between Johnson saying what he says and, say, someone on Fox reporting that Obama is working with the UN to come take your guns or someone on MSNBC reporting that Mitt Romney had a secret plot to eliminate the middle class so that we can reimplement slave labor?

      I look back on my Fox/MSNBC taste tests, and Maddow aside I can’t for the life of me see how we condemn what Johnson does and allow the others the status of *real* journalists.

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  2. It all depends on what your definition of journalism is.

    I prefer 2b, writing characterized by a direct presentation of facts or description of events without an attempt at interpretation. But 2c, writing designed to appeal to current popular taste or public interest is also a legitimate definition. It is also, I’d point out, one that relies on entertainment value, and is not necessarily rooted in actual ethics for journalists. And if you’re concerned about that? Google has a lot to say on the topic.

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    • And there’s the decade-old question, Are bloggers journalists?

      One of the earliest ethical codes for bloggers was published in the Weblog Handbook by Rebecca Blood in 2002:

      1. Publish as fact only that which you believe to be true. If your statement is speculation, say so.
      2. If material exists online, link to it when you reference it. Linking to referenced material allows readers to judge for themselves the accuracy and insightfulness of your statements.
      3. Publicly correct any misinformation.
      4. Write each entry as if it could not be changed; add to, but do not rewrite or delete, any entry.
      5. Disclose any conflict of interest.
      6. Note questionable and biased sources.

      Another influential blogger code of ethics was created by Jonathan Dube, editorial director for CBC.ca and also an award-winning print journalist who created cyberjournalist.net. The principles were adapted from the code of ethics used by the Society of Professional Journalists with its principles of fairness, accountability and minimizing of harm. See http://www.cyberjournalist.net/news/000215.php

      Martin Kuhn from the University of North Carolina suggests that Dube’s code does not address the human dialogue and interactive nature of blogs. In his paper, “Interactivity and Prioritizing the Human: A Code of Blogging Ethics,” Kuhn includes promoting interactivity, promoting free expression, and promoting the ‘human’ element in blogging. His code is:

      1. Promote interactivity
      • Post to your blog on a regular basis
      • Visit and post on other blogs
      • Respect blog etiquette
      • Attempt to be entertaining, interesting, and/or relevant

      2. Promote free expression
      • Do not restrict access to your blog by specific individuals or groups
      • Do not self censor by removing posts or comments once they are published
      • Allow and encourage comments on your blog

      3. Strive for factual truth
      • Never intentionally deceive others
      • Be accountable for what you post

      4. Be as transparent as possible
      • Reveal your identity as much as possible (name, photo, background info, etc.)
      • Reveal your personal affiliations and conflicts of interest
      • Cite and link to all sources referenced in each post

      5. Promote the human element in blogging
      • Minimize harm to others when posting information
      • Promote community by linking to other blogs and keeping a “blogroll”
      • Build relationships by responding to e-mails and comments regularly

      So even here, there’s some focus on truth vs. entertainment.

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    • I agree with you, to a point. For my own tastes as a consumer, I prefer narrative journalism over the basic WWWW nuts and bolts writing.

      What I am less sure about, however, is whether or not you can have people writing quality narrative journalism if there isn’t basic WWWW nuts and bolts work having been done prior.

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      • Well, it’s impossible to write narrative journalism without doing the who/what/where/when reporting; facts are supposed to underly any journalism, and without that reporting, there are not facts to narrate or report. For what you’re concerned with here — developing narrative using good (and ethical) journalism techniques, it’s more a function of space; does the writer have the space to do this? That’s why folks love writing for mags like the New Yorker or The Atlantic; they give you the space for narrative journalism. The NYT? Maybe in the Sunday Mag, but mostly, no.

        I’d also suggest that narrative journalism makes room for an additional W: why; the synthesis of facts into a narrative.

        In blog journalism, the constraint is probably more a matter of readers having the attention. Plus, most blogs don’t publish journalism, they link journalism/opinion pieces with their own 2-cents added in for measure. That’s not journalism; and I think that’s another confounding issue here; the lines between aggregating and reporting and opinion are really unclear in the blogosphere. Megan McArdle does original reporting. She mostly writes opinion.

        I’ve often considered a writing a series of pieces for here on citizen journalism; I’m not sure I want to go through the preliminary organization required, and I think there are a lot of resources out there already. But there’s a lot of writing that could/should be being done about local issues that’s not happening because the local people do not know how, and that’s enormously sad.

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  3. was a criminal by showing a video of him rapping.

    Just as an aside, if there was ever a sentence that you wouldn’t want to solely rely on spellcheck for proofreading…

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  4. Remember the Maine!!!

    Charles Johnson is absolutely despicable but he is hardly doing anything new. William Randolph Hearst was basically able to get the nation to go war based on making up stuff up.

    I don’t even know if we can properly call Johnson a journalist. He seems more to be a partisan agent provocateur whose mission in life is to make the other side look bad. At a profit of course. I also don’t know if the Times is crushing on him. Mother Jones certainly would not be.

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      • There has always been tabloid journalism. The NY Post and the NY Daily News are pretty old institutions.*

        But the internet seems to be destroying fact finding because you need to be out their first with a story. There is also the fact that being the person who exposes viral media as a scam gets less clicks than the people spreading the viral media.

        Slate published an article on this and I can’t remember the title but basically the viral stuff draws the clicks. The example they gave was how an alleged shot of strangers kissing for the camera drew 10 million clicks. The Slate article that exposed the alleged strangers as all being professional models and actors only got 500,000 clicks. The same is true with the recent story of the Stuy HS student who made 72 million on the stock market. It was viral media before the NY Observer called shenanigans and got the kid to recant.

        Things that are too good to be true probably are but that doesn’t stop people from wanting things to be true because they are too good.

        Johnson is different though. New Media allows for hyper-partisan media and people looking to muck it up. Trolling is also a way to get the clicks. This time trolling equals yellow journalism.

        *Interestingly the Post was the liberal tabloid for most of the 20th century and the Daily News was the conservative tabloid. This changed when Murdoch bought the Post in the 1970s. Peter Hamil went from working for the Post to working for the Daily News.

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  5. I tend to think that people with this approach to business/life tend to be like rocket shots that don’t make it to orbit. Very colorful, loud, and attention-getting, but not sustainable.

    Maybe I’m wrong about that. Sometimes people like that get a devoted following. But remember how much attention Glenn Beck got? And who’s paying attention to him now?

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  6. Not nearly as serious a journalistic issue as the papers writing exactly what the corporations tell them to print. If you want it on the front page? Get a graph.

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  7. Dan Rather is the reason anyone knows who Charles Johnson is.

    *****

    It’s also really funny to see people talking about him as some sort of conservative superagent, considering that he’s basically ragequit every conservative blog in existence.

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  8. All over the blogosphere, everyone is lining up to make Charles Johnson the folk hero…

    It is a very small corner of the internet in which Charles Johnson has become a folk hero. Mostly his actions have made him a pariah, even among conservative and libertarian circles. For instance, a week or so ago I had 7 FB friends in common with this guy (all DC conservative and libertarian types); today that number is two.

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    • This is accurate. The post vastly overstates the breadth of his support, as far as I have seen. He has his supporters, but he also has a lot of people that started distancing themselves from him since Mississippi.

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  9. Except the “view from nowhere” isn’t about reporting objective facts. It’s about evading or ignoring objective facts in favour of taking the middle position on any issue and reporting both sides’ views as equally legitimate, rather than examining and analyzing which views are actually factually supported. It’s a way of avoiding doing real journalism.

    To quote from the linked article:

    According to Rosen, the view from nowhere “places the journalist between polarized extremes, and calls that neither-nor position ‘impartial.’”…Paul Krugman has a famous joke headline about the view from nowhere, one that’s only a slight exaggeration of the practice at its worst: “Shape of the Planet: Both Sides Have a Point.”

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  10. Everybody knows him now. Next up, he publishes a few slightly less offensive pieces and begins a long successful career in right-wing media. Compare that to the effort required to build a career by doing actual journalism.

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    • My guess is that this is exactly what does not happen. Johnson, like Erdely, have done very serious damage to his reputation. Neither of them comes back from this easily. Even if everything that Jackie said turns out to be false, Johnson is still going to be known as the guy who doxed a rape victim. Despite what some may think, that sort of thing doesn’t exactly play well on the conservative side of the aisle.

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  11. It’s funny, I initially read this post as being critical of the “view from nowhere” by pointing to the three linked profiles of CJ as examples of journalistic deference even in the case of a clearly libeling scumbag. Then I realized you were actually criticizing the critics of the “view from nowhere” as having somehow encouraged CJ’s rise. I guess I can see how both arguments are appropriate; we could use a little more CJism in the media so we have fewer people like CJ himself.

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