I see the chairman of News Ltd, John Hartigan, has some harsh words for bloggers. In an address to the National Press Club yesterday, he claimed that "amateur journalism trivialises and corrupts serious debate", and that only well-trained professional journalists wrote reliable news. (This, I am sure, has nothing whatsoever to do with News Ltd's launch of its blog-style commentary website The Punch, "Australia's best conversation"). As he is further reported in the Age:
"In return for [bloggers'] free content, we pretty much get what we've paid for - something of such limited intellectual value as to be barely discernible from massive ignorance," he said. "Like (Paul) Keating's famous 'all tip and no iceberg', it could be said that the blogosphere is all eyeballs and no insight." He said blogs often gave a platform for "radical sweeping statements unsubstantiated with evidence".
Mr Hartigan has a point, but as always in these debates, he's comparing the worst of blogging with the best of journalism. If you reverse the comparison, and compare the worst of journalism with the best of blogging, you can come up with a completely different picture. For example: if professional reporters are such glowing avatars of responsible fact-checked journalism, how come the hoax story of Jeff Goldblum's death got flashed around Australia on Monday, hmmm? I read it on the Age's website...
And everyone who has been interviewed for the mass media knows the perils of misquotation. I was once interviewed by a print journalist with no visible notebook, who then drew a series of wholly moronic quotations from her less-than-vivid imagination. I mean, I'm happy to stand by my own stupidities, but it tries your patience to be made to look more idiotic than you actually are.
As in so many parts of my life, I have a foot in both camps. I'm a blogger who got an old-fashioned and thorough training in print journalism back when dinosaurs roamed Flinders St. In those days, the line between journalism and fiction was sometimes very thin indeed: I once, with these very eyes, watched a weather-beaten hardened cynic of a journalist completely make up a rattling story for the front page of a (now defunct) newspaper, after an afternoon of fruitless phone calls turned up no confirmation whatsoever of a headline-grabbing rumour. But even that seems preferable to the routine processing of press releases that constitutes so much contemporary reporting these days.
So, sure. If traditional newspapers produce fine journalism, I'm all for them. Sometimes they do. But you can be sure that very often the very structures of news gathering mitigate against such things. I'm totally with Mr Hartigan when he says that "amateur journalism" trivialises and corrupts serious debate: but his argument would have more strength if it didn't so often grace the mainstream media. Maybe a case of taking the beam out of his own eye first?