Dear Leonard Pitts, "Citizen Journalism" Is Not the Enemy. Lying Is.
Dear Mr. Pitts,
We haven't met, but I have followed your work with admiration and pride for years. I'm aware that you won a well-deserved Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2004. I still find your prize-winning columns breathtaking - your nuanced, but unsparing voice eulogizing a mother who called a nation to conscience, demanding that we hold fast to reason when the heart cries for vengeance, and leavening a denunciation of human rights violations in an Islamic culture with a call to self examination by Christians. I love the way so much of your work is focused on solutions, on asking us to see the humanity of those with whom we disagree, while standing up for what we believe to be right.
So it was with some surprise that I read your most recent Miami Herald column, "Citizen Journalists? Spreading Like a Cold," which turned out to be a denunciation of James O'Keefe, the right-wing agitator and producer of propagandistic ambush videos credited with destroying ACORN. I agree with you that O'Keefe is not a journalist, and anyone who says he is either doesn't understand the concept, or isn't being honest. I explained why in a Blogher post last February, covering much of the same ground you cited in your column: journalists work hard at being accurate, they question their own assumptions and they submit themselves to a code of ethics.
But for you, O'Keefe is emblematic of the problem with that amorphous thing called "citizen journalism." You write:
Yet I remain convinced that, with exceptions, citizen journalism is to journalism as pornography is to a Martin Scorsese film; while they may employ similar tools -- i.e., camera, lighting -- they aspire to different results.
I'm sorry, Mr. Pitts, that's too imprecise. Like you, I abhor the James O'Keefes and their ilk who manufacture "facts" to suit their ideology. But like the street drug dealer whose criminal enterprise is usually the tip of a much larger and deadlier enterprise, O'Keefe is the visible symbol of a propaganda machine that, too often, is aided and abetted by the very news organizations that claim to uphold the values you and I were taught to revere as trained journalists. Reportedly, O'Keefe's "mentor and benefactor" is Andrew Breitbart, the man who distributed the infamous, selectively-edited video of former Department of Agriculture employee Shirley Sherrod's speech before a local NAACP chapter last year. Journalists at the Atlanta Journal Constitution and CNN exposed that particular lie by bothering to do a little elementary spadework. By the journalistic values on which I was raised, that should taint Breitbart as a source or commentator.
And yet, not only did Breitbart show up on CNN's Parker and Spitzer this past weekend, CBS news ran an interview, reproduced in the Huffington Post, in which Breitbart makes more defamatory and unsubstantiated claims about Sherrod, based on her role in the still-unresolved case of Pigford v. Vilsack. As you may know, as a result of lawsuits documenting USDA discrimination in lending practices, Sherrod her husband, and a farm cooperative they ran were among hundreds of plaintiffs awarded a settlement totaling $1.2 billion. Congress has denied funding for the settlement, and critics continue to question the legitimacy of the claim. Whatever one thinks of the legitimacy of the Pigford settlement, Breitbart has no credibility as an analyst or commentator of the case.
(As an aside, I'm reminded that CBS's corporate sibling, Simon and Schuster, published Jerome Corsi's best-selling 2008 hit job on then-candidate Barack Obama, under the imprint of Republican strategist Mary Matalin, who reportedly defended it as a "work of scholarship.")
Your larger point - that a lot of people who call themselves "citizen journalists" are, like O'Keefe more interested in advancing an ideology than in the pursuit of truth - is best served when we hold professional news organizations to the standards to which we claim to subscribe. That's where critics of the news media who like to cite the transgressions of such former reporters as Jayson Blair, Jack Kelley, Janet Cooke, Mitch Albom and other plagiarists and fabulists miss the point. Yes, these reporters' transgressions angered and frustrated those who work hard to do the job right. Yes, the news organizations for which they worked, and the news industry generally, suffered as a result of their deceit. But in each of hese cases, there was a sanction for bad behavior. Where I think you and I agree is that for people like O'Keefe and Breitbart who try to wrap themselves in the mantle of the journalist, bad behavior has no such sanction.
If "citizen journalists" are confused about how to do the job properly, perhaps it's because sometimes, those of us who have the knowledge don't do enough to hold the industry accountable when they give a megaphone to charlatans. I would submit energized cadre of bloggers, "citizen journalists," or simply civicly engaged news consumers are your most likely allies in an effort to get both professional and amateur journalists to live up to the title..