What the hell is a "real journalist" anyway?
I've been writing for PandoDaily for much of the past year. It's one of the best gigs I've had in the 20 years I've been reporting and writing on business, mainly because the journalists who are employed there are smart, talented, interesting people.
And then there's Bryan Goldberg. Like me, he's a contributor to the site, although I've never met him. I've never even looked at Bleacher Report, the sports site he started, left and won't stop talking about. It sounds like a pretty nice financial success, but the fact is I don't have time. There is just too much excellent sportswriting by people who are paid to do it for a living or by bloggers entrepreneurial enough to run their own blogs.
Goldberg wrote one piece I loved, a rant against Millennial-bashing that said a lot that needed to be said. When he hits his target, I find his writing pretty compelling. But much of the time I feel like he's describing a world I don't live in – especially when he's talking about journalism. Not long ago, he wrote, “If you are a freelance journalist, don’t expect to get paid $500 per article.” Before I finished the piece, I thought of a dozen freelance writers who aren't household names but who are paid at least $500 per online article. They get away with it because they are good.
Today, Goldberg wrote a takedown of a straw man he termed the “real journalist.” It's all fumes of rage, and so little substance I still have no idea what he thinks a real journalist is. I thought anyone who practiced journalism was a real journalist, and that the only fake journalists were on the Daily Show. The main distinction that matters in journalism – or in any profession, really – is one of quality. You're either good at it nor not. And if you're not it will catch up to you in time.
None of this seems to matter to Goldberg. He's having too much fun taking down his straw man. And nothing is easier to take down than a straw man. Reading the piece made me think of someone in a psychotherapy session, screaming at a pillow. I really hope he got it out of his system.
But here's the thing. The art of the takedown is a tricky one, one I have certainly not mastered. But it always seemed pretty clear that if you were going to attempt it, you had to do it neatly, like a hit man. Your writing is your gun: You point it, you shoot, you walk away.
What you do not do is shit your pants out of rage when you pull the trigger.
Goldberg likes to challenge critics who comment on his pieces by retorting that, if they don't like it, they don't need to read it. Which is true enough – and an attitude I have learned to adopt toward his writing. And so I wouldn't point any of this out – hell, I wouldn't even have read his whole rant – had it not appeared on a site where my own writing appears. My first response to it was personal embarrassment. One point Bryan and I agree on is that journalists, whether they like it or not, now have brands they need to manage. And I don't want the scent emanating from Goldberg's journalistic undergarments stinking up my brand.
I'm embarrassed for a few reasons – for one, because of Goldberg's gratuitous and flimsy ad-hominem attack on a writer whose work I've long respected. Alexis Madrigal jumped to harsh conclusions in his initial post about Sean Parker's wedding, and the fury those conclusions created caused a great deal of pain for Parker and others. He admitted as much and printed Parker's response in full on his blog.
Out of this Goldberg extrapolates some fantasy of journalism as class-struggle, of underpaid malcontents trying to smear wealthy entrepreneurs, and here he steps into a world I'm not familiar with. I've known as many journalists from wealthy families as poor ones, and all of the good ones were interested in telling the truth. That doesn't mean they didn't have lapses in judgment or made dumb errors.
What it means is this: Business journalism works best when it regards money as another piece of technology, albeit an ancient one. Like any technology created by people, what matters most is how you use it. You can have as much or as little as you want, but any value it confers on you as a person comes from how you use it. That's true for companies, and it's true for people.
Wealth is probably the simplest, clearest-cut measure we have in the business world to gauge success. But it's a fool who thinks it's the only measure, or even the paramount one. There are others. In the industry of journalism, credibility and authority matter more than anything – even how much you're paid. And if you look closely at the body of Madrigal's work over the past several years, he's built up a lot of both.
There's been a similar kind of simplistic, black-and-white thinking about the whole debate over Sean Parker's wedding this past week. He's either an unjustly vilified hero or a hypocritical douchebag. The truth is rather gray. He made some valid (if blindingly obvious) criticisms about media coverage, but also showed a surprising cluelessness about the adverse effects of an online world he played a role in shaping. But somehow, our views of money are distorting things: If you defend Parker, you're an apologist of the rich. If you attack him, you're an impoverished sore loser.
Goldberg's post did nothing to remedy this distortion. Instead, his invective stirred the embers of an already irrational conversation. Several commenters pointed out – rightly, in my opinion – that the pot was calling the kettle black. If Goldberg doesn't like what he calls the real journalists, he doesn't have to read them.
Or lecture them. “It’s time for them to grow the hell up and quit fiddling while the world of journalism burns behind them,” Goldberg concludes, in what he must have felt to be a triumphant, drop-the-mike moment. But hang on a second. The world of journalism isn't burning. The Internet is killing the old model, yes, but the new models are only starting to emerge. That's not destruction. It's change. And as brutal as that transition is at times, it's exciting to be a journalist right now to see how the change will play out.
In the meantime, things will be messy for a while. The furor over things like Parker's wedding, the rush to judgment and subsequent retractions, the public lynchings on Twitter, the boiling over of conversational media into childish shouting matches, the shoddy reporting drowning out the good, the spurious opinion obscuring the boring old facts – these are going to be a part of the world of journalism. But in time we'll learn from our mistakes.
None of this is happening because a journalist is real or fake. The change, and the chaos it's creating, is systemic. It's not personal. And when the dust settles, there will be a better balance between the old model of deeply reported journalism and the newer models of blogged opinion and social-media conversations.
Not long ago, I was talking with a filmmaker and the conversation turned to whether movie theaters would go away. No, he said, because culture is a layered thing. Movies didn't go away when TV arrived, and TV didn't disappear when broadband video arrived. I think it will be the same with journalism. The subscription-based newspaper will go away, but the demand for well-reported stories will always be high enough someone will figure out a way to make it worthwhile. It will coexist with the readymade opinion of user-generated content.
And this, I think, gets at what if anything defines a real journalist. In the novel Stranger in a Strange Land, Heinlein introduced the concept of the Fair Witness – a professional paid to observe and report exactly what is seen, nothing more. A Fair Witness would make a poor journalist because they are prohibited from drawing conclusions. But I always thought that, to be any good at the job, a journalist had to be in part a Fair Witness.
That, Mr. Goldberg, is what a real journalist is. It has nothing to do with income, or background, or who your boss is, or how nice someone is to rich people. It's about realizing that true objectivity is an impossible ideal, but pushing your work as close to it as you can anyway.
I'm sorry I had to make such an obvious point, but after reading your post I felt someone had to.