An interesting thing happens every time I question new media.
Doesn’t matter how gentle or non-judgmental I am. Doesn’t matter if I’m more curious than critical. Doesn’t matter that I like blogs, and I like seeing old media finally being held accountable, and I like that sports journalism has never been better because there are so many more, new and fresh voices and eyes to provide checks and balances.
Every time I write about the subject, every time, I get hit with an avalanche of name-calling and dismissive accusations. The volume of it — volume in terms of amount, volume in terms of intensity of noise — always makes me flinch. Why, I wonder, are you so angry at me/us/what I represent? What’d I do to piss you off so much? It is a furnace blast of gurgling resentment that feels like it has been building through decades of silence, and Twitter has only now allowed you to uncage. I hear you. We finally hear your voice. It isn’t necessary to be so loud and hostile with it.
My curiosity about new media, which I’ve written about before here, is a simple fascination with the evolution of our business. I don’t want you to get the hell off my lawn. It isn’t even my lawn. I’m renting here, just like you. So drink on the lawn. Have fun. Just don’t spit in my face on the rare occasions when I wander over and, amid this great party, wonder who is going to clean up all the urine on the porch when we’re done here.
This is what I always get in response to what I write about new media needing to have some rules to govern itself (not my rules, just rules): I’m protecting my precious, pathetic little turf. I’m ancient and threatened. I’m afraid about how quickly I’m becoming irrelevant. I can assure you, according to a source very close to me, that I am none of those things. I’m insecure about plenty of things, but my job status is not one of them. It is too easy a default dismissal, the cliche equivalent of me telling you that you work from a computer in your mother’s basement, and it is the greatest soothing involved in calling someone else a hater: It allows you permission to not look inside. Know this: I’m grateful for this ridiculous thing I do for a living, profoundly, and I absolutely don’t think I am more entitled to this platform, this voice, this fun than you are.
And yet I get so much, “Fuck you, LeBatard. It’s our turn now. No more filters, agendas, biases, protecting of athletes. You don’t decide what is news any more. Ital:We:ital decide now.” To which I scratch my head and say, “But you’ve always decided. The marketplace always decides.” That is why, now more than ever, TMZ feels entitled to peer in the bedrooms of famous people, our right to know so overwhelming that Deadspin will even trample a 17-year-old girl just to get a closer look.
Journalism is a cool and powerful tool, righting wrongs when used correctly and wronging rights when not. All I’ve ever asked is that we all be aware of its power, and be careful and judicious with it. I try very hard not to sound like your parents yelling about that infernal racket that produced rock n’ roll, but it is hard not to notice some of the things that are happening because of blurred lines and stretched boundaries. A Rutgers kid killed himself after his friends posted video of him kissing a boy. A Miami county commissioner committed suicide after it was reported he slept with a transvestite. As this hunt moves toward making more and more sport of human beings, famous and not famous, we should at least be aware that public shame is dangerous as entertainment. And we might want to be self-aware about when we are rationalizing our voyeurism/entitlement by filing it under the greater-good umbrella of “news.”
“I lament the corporatization, politicazation and trivialization of news,” Dan Rather says.
We were talking about this on the radio the other day. He’s a lot smarter than I am.
“In the end, the public always decides what is news,” he said. “But the journalist is the proverbial gatekeeper. There is a school of thought — one I don’t subscribe to — that the old standards of journalism are gone, yesterday. This is today and tomorrow, and today and tomorrow you can get up and say whatever you want to say and go viral worldwide, and pretty much anonymously. These are huge questions we have to ask ourselves. Where are we headed right now? We’re headed to an ever lowering standard everywhere. Appeal to the base instincts, with at least some of the time, lives ruined. We’re on a downhill slope. It’s a societal question, not a journalism question.”
I know. I know. He sounds like your grandfather. But your grandfather accrued a bit of wisdom along the path, you know? The consumer can always shrug his shoulders and say, “I want what I want. I want gossip. I want to know what is going on in the life of public figures. It is my right.” That’s fine. You are entitled to feel that way, new and fresh. But if no one feels responsible, if anything goes, if no one sees consequences, then nothing gets prevented and, next thing you know, a Rutgers kid is killing himself. Once something horrible happens because of our nosy need to know, or be entertained, or make sport of human beings, there is no going back and fixing it. It does no good to feel bad only afterward, and it shows no vision.
The only recourse is to be careful with the tool now, to understand its power. Old, antiquated journalism has rules in place that, for example, will not publish a rape victim’s name, not because it is illegal but because it is an agreed-upon standard. As a texter wrote in to my radio show the other day, “New or old media should not be excused from the standard. New media, like the teenager that it is, must accept discipline to be taken seriously.”
“I have no idea where this is all headed, and that is what we’re all trying to reconcile,” Rather says. “Where does the public’s right to know, and have their voices heard, meet the right to privacy? None of us have the answer to this, but what are the standards? Do we have any standards? What are the standards right now? We’re basically operating without any. It’s all well and good to say the old standards are outdated and let’s do away with them. OK. But if that’s true, what if any standards are we going to put in their place?”
But what does he know, right?
He’s being protective of his precious, pathetic little turf.
He’s ancient and threatened.
He’s afraid of how quickly he became irrelevant.
Or maybe he just cares.
And maybe he’d like you to at least hear and consider his viewpoint before he is gone.