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Dec. 1, 2008, 9:38 a.m.

Dr. Journalism, I presume?

From the Metaphor Dept.: I point you toward this essay on the explorer and journalist Henry Stanley (of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame) for a couple reasons:

— It’s an fascinating read for history buffs, a group I suspect includes a lot of journalists. (The blog it’s on, The Edge of the American West, is a consistently great source of history stuff.)

— It’s an interesting look at how the arguments some journalists reflexively use against “the Internet” echo those originally used against newspapermen.

(Work with me here — we risk running aground on Metaphor Shoals otherwise.)

For those unfamiliar with the basic story, Stanley was a reporter for The New York Herald sent on a journey to Africa to find the Scottish explorer David Livingstone, who had not been heard from in some time. After finding him, Stanley — a tireless self-promoter — addressed the Royal Geographical Society, which had sponsored more traditional exploratory missions and wasn’t impressed by this brash and unschooled reporter:

Yet his response to being pilloried for his “sensationalism” was largely to agree (calling himself a “troubador”), and to make a virtue of his profession by focusing on the primacy of unmediated knowledge; as he put it, “if a man goes there and says ‘I have seen the source of the river,’ the man sitting in his easy chair or lying in bed cannot dispute this fact on any grounds of theory,” and he repeatedly returns to this point. It is, in a way, an argument for the primacy of fieldwork over stay-at-home learning — a theoretical question that social scientists would spend the next half-century arguing about — but he also specifically places this methodological difference in the service of nationalist difference, asserting the superior mobility of American methods over ponderous British dignity. [Emphasis mine.]

Does that argument look familiar to any of you? The value of unmediated information, direct from the source closest to the scene, versus the value of an older tradition that filters that information through the methods and mores of a profession? Substitute “those bloggers” for Stanley and “the mainstream media” for the Royal Geographic Society.

[F]or the RGS, the American newspaperman is tarred by his associations with the cheap and democratic availability of newsprint while, in his mind, Stanley is uplifted by exactly this association.

This is precisely the same duality you see today: many mainstream journalists see bloggers as far too small-d democratic — representing the uninformed hoi polloi at the expense of the learned caste who are trained to commit acts of journalism. And many bloggers see the mainstream media as a kind of unearned priesthood that should be smashed — or, at the very least, which carries no special trustworthiness.

As Mary Louise Pratt has observed, the actual practice of African “discovery” was generally a non-event, and usually boiled down to asking the locals if there were any big lakes in the area and then getting them to take you there. Yet by aestheticizing the act of “discovery,” Pratt notes, such a non-event could become a spectacle of imperial power. Richard Burton’s “discovery” of Lake Tanganyika, for example, is written as a romantic epiphany, and locates its momentousness not in the plain fact of seeing but in the cultivated sensibility which apprehended the spectacle. Imperial mastery, for him, proceeded from this kind of poetics, an implicit argument that a space belongs primarily to those who can appreciate it.

Think of how traditional journalism has fetishized its acts of “discovery.” Much of the news produced in a newspaper on any given day was not “discovered” in any true sense by the journalist whose name is attached to it. Much of it comes from a source that is happy to share the information, often a business or a government or an organization. It is “discovered” only in the sense that Richard Burton “discovered” Lake Tanganyika — the journalist/explorer takes a piece of information known only to a few and shares it with a much broader audience than knew it before. The key in both cases is the distribution of the information, not its “discovery” — that’s the act that gives someone “ownership” of the discovery. And both cases are vulnerable to changes in that distribution model; today’s Internet user no longer needs to read his local newspaper to obtain most of the news and information that rests inside it.

When he notes of would-be African travelers that “the more plastic his nature, the more prosperous will be his travels,” [Stanley] gives up something that Burton and company held onto for good reasons: the decided “un-plasticity” of Burton and the RGS was precisely the basis on which the white man’s monopoly on African knowledge was maintained. Stanley’s American emphasis on the frontiersman’s absorption into the frontier environment, on the other hand, relocated discovery back into the environment itself.

See above: You can probably complete the metaphors regarding the rigidity of the old ways, the establishment’s disdain for the loss of its information monopoly, and the shift in emphasis from the “discoverer” to the environment itself.

Much of the rest of the very interesting piece revolved around how the poetics of the Stanley-RGS interaction play into nationalist conceptions of the U.S./U.K. relationship — who was ahead and who was behind. I won’t stretch the metaphor to that point. And history is clear that Stanley was something of a truth-stretcher himself (claiming through much of his life to be a Missourian, not the Wales-born man he was). But it’s a reminder that the battles ongoing in our field now are not fundamentally new ones — they echo ideas that have been in the ether as long as information has been transmitted from one to many.

POSTED     Dec. 1, 2008, 9:38 a.m.
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