Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Instant Experts, Circa 1968

I wrote earlier this week about David Pell's commentary at on the Five Most Endangered Words on the Internet, and chastised him a bit for suggesting that this phenomenon of comment now, think later, is boren of the Internet age.

I offer tonight a brief excerpt from Victor Lasky's book "It Didn't Start with Watergate," published in pre-Internet 1975, speaking on the phenomenon of instant analysis:
By the time Lyndon Johnson left office, his administration was under bitter attack by the media and its subsidiary organizations. Thus in 1968 the journalism society Sigma Delta Chi had this to day: "The Credibility Gap, which as reached awesome proportions under the Johnson Administration, continued to be a grave handicap. Secrecy, lies, half-truths, deception -- this was the daily fare."

In turn there were those who felt that the press had its own credibility problems. Douglas Cater, special assistant to President Johnson, suggested that too often newsmen presumed an expertise they quite obviously didn't have.

"I'm concerned about the little demigods of TV who make an instant analysis of complicated events," said Cater. "There should be bounds on what TV men do, so much of which is delivered with flippant abandon."
It's a familiar criticism, as Pell says. The mainstream media sees this attitude -- with some justification -- in the blogosphere. It's a criticism they ought to be careful in making, since it's obviously a criticism that can be leveled at themselves quite easily, with some justification.

It's a common aphorism in most journalism circles that a journalist is an "instant expert." It's a cute thing to tell journalism students and rookie reporters, but it can also be a dangerous thing. I know I fell for it often enough -- not our of laziness, but out of sheer exasperation in trying to become an expert in something in a day or less, given the common deadlines we're given to work with. I note that the reporters and writers I enjoy the most aren't instant experts -- they're the ones who have toiled for years to understand their subject matter, and thus can write and speak on it authoritatively through their hard work, not through j-school bravado alone. If I learned anything in my short journalism career, it's that there is only a small leap of difference between an instant expert and an instant asshole. I'm intensely gratified that there exist areas of knowledge in which I can safely say I am somewhat well informed. I'm far from being an expert in anything.

It's as true in journalism as it is true in the blogosphere that there are many out there who babble on with the air of authority without really having the knowledge to back it up. It's equally as true in journalism and the blogosphere that here are many out there that know from whence they speak. The babbling jerks in the blogosphere may be part of the sphere as a whole, but they do not define the sphere. As Uncle Jay would say, "those who think they do ought to be embarrassed."

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