Terence Blacker of the Independent is way off the mark in his discussion of a think tank report suggesting that the line between amateur and professional in all manner of activities — including journalism — is being blurred:
The acme of amateur achievement is the weblog – thoughts, opinions and news items broadcast by an individual and with a potential audience of millions. The Pro-Am revolution has seen bloggers have such a huge influence on the American election that the division between them and the mainstream media has become blurred.
More and more Americans, it is now being said, will gather news and views from their favourite blogger, no matter how mad, ill-informed and right- wing, rather than from a newspaper or the news on television.
The response of the TV channels to this development has been rather creepy. They have become more openly opinionated and slanted in the way that they present news — and, again, the political direction has been sharply to the right. The professionals, in other words, have begun to ape the amateurs.
It was unsurprising to read in The New York Times this week an article by a man with a successful weblog in which he argued that we are all journalists now, that privilege under the law should apply to the humblest blogger as it does to someone working for the national media.
The approach has a sort of crazed egalitarianism to it, but it also suggests that more than just knowledge flows from professionals and their institutions in the age of the Pro-Am. The checks and balances and disciplines that keep intolerance in check may also go. If that is what the new amateurism brings, you can start the revolution without me.
The “crazed egalitarian” with the successful weblog was Eugene Volokh, writing about the various jounralists held in contempt for refusing to devulge their sources to American courts.
Volokh argued that with bloggers making the concept of “professional journalist” fuzzy, it is becoming increasingly difficult to establish a workable legal framework for protecting journalists caught in this bind:
The First Amendment can’t give special rights to the established news media and not to upstart outlets like ours. Freedom of the press should apply to people equally, regardless of who they are, why they write or how popular they are.
Volokh is right. Journalists should never forget that the First Amendment and the freedom of expression guarantees in other liberal democracies are not intended to protect and privilege professsional journalism, much less enterprises that sell commodified news.
Freedom of expression is intended for all citizens to discuss politics in public without threat of intimidation. The fact that the prohibitively high cost of participating in the public sphere has until recently confined the exercise of that right to professional journalists and moneyed publicists is purely incidental — a disfunction of liberal democracy arising out of economic reality not an intentional privilege to be defended.
Blacker need not worry. Bloggers are still reliant on journalists, academics, and other information professionals for their raw material: and given the huge investments required to gather facts reliably, that is unlikely to change any time soon. But they are at their best when subjecting their professional journalists to peer review. Fact checking mainstream reporting improves the information available in public and is not something journalists should be afraid of if they are true to their stated professional values.
In the spirit of rational-critical discourse, I’ll only briefly delight in the juicy irony that Volokh, a law professor, is a an expert in First Amendment law and therefore arguably a more qualified ’professional“ to comment on this than a British journalist. But it’s also important to note that the most influential bloggers are not mere right- (or left-) wing ranters: The best bloggers are people like Volokh — academics, political operatives, and freelance journalists who bring more experience and insight to their posts than many a national newspaper pundit.