I do not believe in “citizen journalism.” Yes, I know that’s heresy. Yes, I know the old model has changed: The monologue is now a dialogue. Yes, I know ordinary people with cellphone cameras now “report” newsworthy events and bloggers are indispensable to the national dialogue.
Yet I remain convinced that, with exceptions, citizen journalism is to journalism as pornography is to a Martin Scorsese film; while they may employ similar tools – i.e., camera, lighting – they aspire to different results.
So I’ve had it up to here with people calling James O’Keefe III a journalist.
Last year, you may recall, O’Keefe was lauded by political conservatives for “investigative journalism” that helped bring down ACORN, the financially troubled group whose sinister works included advocating for poor and middle-income people. O’Keefe, in a hidden camera sting, posed as a pimp and filmed some of the organization’s employees advising him on how to facilitate his supposed illicit business. It made him the toast of the blogosphere and earned him the admiration of Fox News. A resolution honoring him was even introduced in the House of Representatives.
The resolution, which failed, praised O’Keefe and his conspirator, Hannah Giles, for “exemplary actions as government watchdogs and young journalists …”
A year later, the “young journalist’s” star is, putting it mildly, fading.
Earlier this year, prosecutors declined to prosecute ACORN employees amid reports that the videos were selectively and misleadingly edited. Meanwhile, O’Keefe and three others were arrested for trying to tamper with telephones in the office of Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu. Now comes last week’s report of a bizarre plot to embarrass CNN correspondent Abbie Boudreau, who was seeking an interview. O’Keefe had apparently planned to lure her aboard a boat filled with sex toys and secretly record their meeting; thankfully, one of his henchwomen warned Boudreau off.
THIS is journalism? No.
Journalism is hours on the phone nailing down the facts or pleading for the interview.
Journalism is obsessing over nit-picky questions of fairness and context.
Journalism is trying to get the story and get it right.
“Citizen journalism,” we are told, is supposed to democratize all that, the tools of new technology making each of us a journalist unto him or herself. It is a mark of the low regard in which journalism is held that that load of bull pucky ever passed as wisdom. If some guy had a wrench, would that make him a citizen mechanic? If some woman flashed a toy badge, would you call her a citizen police officer? Would you trust your health to a citizen doctor just because he produced a syringe?
Of course not. But every Tom, Dick and Harriet with a blog is a “citizen journalist.”
Worse, they are spreading like the common cold. Ask Shirley Sherrod if you don’t believe me. Sometimes it feels as if there are more “citizen journalists” than citizens. It is hard to know how to feel about that.
After all, it used to be that you couldn’t enjoy freedom of the press unless you could afford to own a press. The Internet has opened the public square to more voices, and you can’t complain about that.
But I don’t believe in citizen journalism because journalism – like any profession worthy of the name – has standards and ethics, and if you don’t sign on to those, I can no more trust you than I can a doctor who refused the Hippocratic oath or a lawyer who failed the bar exam.
You cannot be a journalist – citizen or otherwise – if credibility matters less to you than ideology. So please, let’s find something else to call James O’Keefe III.
If you want, I have a few ideas.
Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald, 1 Herald Plaza, Miami, Fla. 33132. Readers may write to him via e-mail at lpittsmiamiherald.com. Leonard Pitts will be chatting with readers every Wednesday from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. EDT on www.MiamiHerald.com.