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April 9, 2014, 12:30 p.m.
LINK: www.washingtonpost.com  ➚   |   Posted by: Joshua Benton   |   April 9, 2014

At The Washington Post, Joel Achenbach briefly realizes it’s turtles all the way down:

Interviewing is a craft. An interview is not quite the same thing as a conversation. There’s an attempt in an interview to extract useful information, and this is a unilateral endeavor. I’m the one asking the questions here. If the source, for some reason, perhaps after an hour of badgering, asks me a question — for example, “When is this story going to run?” — I will answer in a barely audible whisper, “And you are who, exactly?”

But now I’m wondering if what I consider “reporting” is just a form of aggregating, of skimming, of lifting the best parts of a scientist’s work and repurposing it for my own interests. These scientists have spent many, many years doing research, much of it at the very edge of the knowable, where finding a new piece of solid data is a laborious process that may require long nights at the computer or the laboratory bench, or mulling a bust of Galileo, and this work has to be slotted among other obligations, including grant applications, peer-reviewing papers, teaching, advising graduate students, holding office hours, serving on faculty committees and schmoozing at the faculty club. And here I am calling up and saying: “Give me the fruit of your mental labors.” Asking for the ripest fruit, as it were. Asking not just for information but for wisdom. Give it to me! For free. And they did, because they always do, because we have a system of sorts.

You can find a younger, shaggier-haired version of me making this same argument — that gathering and reassembling the intellectual work of others is core to the journalistic program and has been forever — four years ago at Harvard Law School. (Also, see this 2009 piece and the comments.)

Unfortunately, Achenbach then backs off this revelation by arguing that (a) he knows some stuff too, damn it, which makes it different (I guess aggregators don’t know anything?) and (b) that learning things by making a digital telephone call somehow exists on a whole other plane of existence from learning things by using a digital research tool. It’s the old Puritan idea of the cleansing power of labor — that when things become easier, they lose their worth. Oh, well.

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