Update on Rosen's rollback: be careful what you wish for
[Note: the following is an update to this post from yesterday.]
Reader Rick Ballard has kindly let me know that Jay Rosen has pulled the plug and closed comments on the Bay/Rollback thread. Rosen's reasons for doing so remain somewhat murky to me. But there is no doubt that he had an unusually intense reaction to the discussion there--a discussion that I have to say seemed rather mild and decorous to me compared to some I've seen in the blogosphere.
Although I am somewhat at a loss to know exactly what is going on with Mr. Rosen, it is clear that he is embarrassed. Very very embarrassed.
He tells us so himself, in the final comment he lodged before closing the thread down:
I'm embarrassed that this thread appeared at my weblog. I'm embarrassed that something I wrote and edited was the occasion for it. I embarrassed that the letters "edu" appear in the Web address at the top of this page, since most of this is the opposite of education. I'm embarrassed for having entertained, even for a second, the notion that Austin Bay, a Bush supporter and war veteran, might get a hearing for some of his warnings from those who agree with him on most things.
And I've had enough of anonymous tough guys with their victim's mentality raging at their own abstractions...
Those who wish to continue can head over to Austin's thread, where the story is pretty much the same. But four days of this pathetic spectacle is enough for me. Thread closed. My advice: Go home to your wives and children, and breathe some truth.
The entire thread plus its comments section is so long that I hesitate to ask you to go over to Rosen's blog and read it, but without doing so it's hard to get the full flavor of the discussion that so angered Mr. Rosen. But fortunately blogger Neuro-Con has done us all the service of summarizing it extremely well in this post. Neuro-Con's analysis of the back-and-forth exchange is very much in accord with my own, so rather than reinvent the wheel, I gratefully direct you to his post.
The entire situation becomes increasingly puzzling once one learns more about Mr. Rosen. On the face of it one might think his reaction is that of an elitist ivory-tower academic, resistant to hearing from readers, and interested only in controlling the discussion. His behavior on the thread in question certainly points in that direction.
But that has hardly been Rosen's profile in the past. In fact, for more than a decade, Rosen has been a vocal champion of "people-first, bottom-up 'public journalism'."
And that's not all. Just two short months ago Rosen won the Reporters Without Borders 2005 Freedom Blog award for "outstanding defense of free expression" (see here).
And then there's this October 2003 interview with Christopher Lydon. Here is Rosen speaking:
The terms of authority are changing in American journalism...Blogs are undoing the system for generating authority and therefore credibility of news providers...And the one-to-many broadcasting model of communications--where I have the news and I send it out to everybody out there who's just waiting to get it--doesn't describe the world anymore. And so people who have a better description of the world are picking up the tools of journalism and doing it. It's small. Its significance is not clear. But it's a potentially transforming development...I like [it] when things get shaken up, and when people don't know what journalism is and they have to rediscover it.
Is this the same Jay Rosen who shut down the comments section with the stern and vaguely archaic (not to mention sexist--which is actually the least of its problems) "Go home to your wives and children, and breathe some truth"? (By the way, the expression had such an odd tone that I Googled it, thinking Rosen was quoting some famous saying of which I wasn't aware. But I couldn't find a source. Does the phrase ring a bell with anyone?)
Here's another conversation in which the Jay of old was a participant. He was actually the interviewer in this one, speaking about a year ago with Dan Gillmor, a syndicated technology columnist who does most of the talking. Note the extreme relevance of the following passage, and Rosen's responses:
Gillmor: The first thing we'd need to do is listen, pay attention to what is being said. To really get out of the lecture mode that we've been in and to recognize that something new is going on that will benefit not just our journalism--which of course we want to do--but benefit the people who are reading or listening to or viewing our journalism. Those are the people who we say we want to serve. So, the conversation part of it--the listening part, the responding part--is not just for journalists. It's for all of us, it's for everybody. And it comes back to what I've made a kind of a cliche in my own world, which is that my readers know more than I do.
Rosen: I want to ask about that cliche, because I don't think it's a cliche. I think it's a major insight. First of all, tell me what happened to make you realize "My readers know more than I do." And why didn't it just freak you out?
Gillmor: Well, it did freak me out at first. But what happened was, I went to Silicon Valley in 1994 to write about technology. And I wrote about it in a place where most of the people I was writing about were already on email. And invariably they knew collectively much more than I did. You know, you write about tech in Silicon Valley, by definition your readers know more than you do. And I saw that happening, and I thought, "Hmm, this is really different." And then I thought about it and realized that it wasn't different at all, that it had always been true. That whatever the subject I was writing about, the people who cared enough about it to read it knew more than I did--collectively. It was only now, however, that there was a quick-response mechanism --this feedback loop established through email at first and then later through other tools, that made it possible for them to let me know, in a hurry. And I can assure you that people in the Valley are never shy about letting you know when they think you're wrong or when you're missing something.
Rosen: So, it's not just, "My readers know more than I do." It's, "My readers know more than I do and I can tap that because they will tell me."
Gillmor: Exactly. The ability to find out things that you don't already know and then to incorporate them into what you do in the future--it's a great advantage for any journalist. I think all journalists on any beat need to understand that this is an opportunity. It's not remotely a threat. And journalists have skills that the people writing to us may or may not have. And why don't we, in the best sense of the expression, all take mutual advantage of this situation to do a better job?
Rosen: Well, let's cut a little deeper into that. Because even though what you say is logical, and good advice, I can think of lots of reasons why "My readers know more than I do" might be resisted by journalists. For one thing, the basic transaction in mainstream journalism is understood to be--I'm the journalist. I know things because I've done my reporting. I've inquired, I've asked questions, and I've hunted down documents. And you don't know. You weren't there. You're not a reporter. You don't have the time. You're off living your life. And so the whole idea of informing the public, informing the readers, assumes that the news organization knows and its customers--as it were--don't.
And secondly, the authority of the journalist--the way it has evolved in the United States--is very much tied up with the journalist knowing things that others don't. Having access that others don't. Witnessing things that others can't--a press conference, etc. And it's almost like in the deep grammar of American journalism, the assumption is that knowledge moves from the news organization to a public that lacks it. So, it's not surprising to me that "My readers know more than I do" is hard to grasp.
So strangely enough, in this interview of about a year ago, when Rosen described so well the thought process of journalists who try to exercise authority over their readers--a sort of intellectual snobbery on their part--he also ended up describing the tenor of his own response to the comments in that recent thread. His insight was both eerie and prescient--applied to himself. The very thing he noted in so many journalists seems to have worked its irresistible siren call on him.
So this is my question for Jay Rosen: have you forgotten this interview? If so, could you perhaps read it again, and review the idea of the new journalism as a conversation, a conversation that you cannot control by the force of your authority?
My guess is that Rosen is an idealist who truly does believe (or thinks he believes) in extending the principles of democracy to the institution of the press--what he calls "public journalism." Ideally, that is; in his head. I'm not sure, though, that he has the stomach or the heart for the results--the sometimes messy and unwieldy reality of a truly public forum such as blog comments, in which the press is often accused of bias.
If Rosen wants a conversation, he certainly got one on his blog. It may be a demonstration of the old saying: be careful what you wish for.
[UPDATE: Dean disagrees.
Here's a copy of my response to Dean, which I posted as a comment there:
I certainly agree that any blogger has the right to cut off comments for any reason, any time, on his/her blog. You have that right, I have that right, and Jay Rosen has that right, which he exercised.
However, to those who haven't plowed through the comments section in question, I'll say that that particular thread didn't seem to feature a high volume of nasty attacks on Mr. Rosen himself. Nor was it even a particularly rabid group of comments in general, especially considering its great length. Comments threads sometimes degenerate into mindless name-calling, but this one had quite a bit of substance--and, in the main, I think people were trying to be relatively polite (especially for the blogosphere) and to discuss the issues. That's why Rosen's behavior seemed so puzzling to me.
What's the significance of it all, and why bother talking about it? Is Rosen "just a guy?" Well, of course he is. But he is also a guy who is a champion of the idea that journalists need to engage in a conversation with readers, of "people-first, bottom-up 'public journalism' ". When in that thread he seemed to cut off such "conversation" in an especially testy and condescending manner, and seemed angry that people were accusing the press of bias, his behavior was arguably both hypocritical and a microcosm of the larger issue of whether the press is guilty of arrogance and one-sidedness (the subject matter of many of the comments). So, although certainly not of earth-shattering importance, his act took on a somewhat larger significance than the simple and rather unremarkable fact that Jay Rosen had closed down comments on a particular thread.]