John Darnton is a good novelist, and was a superb journalist in a long career at the New York Times. Now he’s curator of the Polk Awards, one of only a couple of journalism prizes that means anything. (Journalists have a tedious tendency to give themselves prizes, more so than any other business I can name.)
The Polk awards have been ahead of the game in recent years. Two, notably, have recognized that journalism has moved squarely into the Digital Age, even though most of the kinds of journalism achievements that win big prizes — notably investigative reports — continue to be done by organizations willing to spend serious money and devote serious time to the efforts.
The first pathbreaker, which falls into the category of organization-based media that happens to live on the web in this case, went to Josh Marshall and his team at Talking Points Memo in 2007. The one making waves this year, and the more relevant here, went to the still-anonymous person who captured the video images of the death Neda Agha-Soltan in the Iranian election protests early last year.
Darnton, interviewed by Mediaite, an online publication, offered left-handed compliments to the Neda video — making it entirely clear that he doesn’t really believe average people (as opposed to journalists with years of experience) have much to offer beyond bystander status. From the column by Willard C. Rappleye Jr.:
“(Darnton) does take umbrage, though, against the term ‘citizen journalist.’ ‘If you’re walking down the street and somebody collapses in front of you and somebody else runs over and administers CPR because they happen to know it, and saves the victim, you wouldn’t go home and say you saw somebody saved by a citizen doctor. You’d say you saw someone saved by a bystander who happened to know CPR. Right? ‘Same thing here. I like to call them bystanders — not journalists. Just good bystanders.’”
I’ve long since stopped taking umbrage when people don’t get it. But to hear stuff like this from someone with Darnton’s track record is dismaying.
He clearly does not understand — or if he does, he deeply regrets — that journalism is no longer the province of the people like himself, who rose on well defined career tracks through a business that was comprised mostly of big monopoly organizations or a few members of an oligopoly, businesses that achieved their economic power due to conditions that no longer apply.
He does not get that journalism is an ecosystem, and that it is becoming more diverse over time.
The regular people who capture important videos and pictures — or who blog authortitatively what they’ve seen, etc. etc. etc. — are not journalists. But they have committed acts of journalism, profoundly important acts of journalism. That is their role — or more accurately one of their roles — in the ecosystem, and it’s becoming at least as important as any other role including the one played by the people who do it for a living or for a few freelance dollars.
Just as reporter shield laws (assuming we should have them) should protect journalism, not the people who are accredited or licensed to be journalists, in these awards — and in everyday life — it is the act of journalism we should be celebrating.
Darnton’s instincts are sound. And his wish to recognize the values of great journalism is absolutely correct. But I hope he’ll expand his field of vision. And I hope he’ll join those of us who are working on ways to help those people he relegates to bystander roles become even more active and knowledgeable participants in the journalism sphere.
Citizens who commit acts of journalism: Instead of semi-sneers, they deserve our support in every possible way.