Patrick Nielsen Hayden sends us to Zunguzungu:
“In Somalia this would be called piracy.” -Bill Keller
“Africa, as an idea, a concept, has historically served, and continues to serve, as a polemical argument for the West’s desperate desire to assert its difference from the rest of the world.” -Achille Mbembe
Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis and Felix Salmon (and Felix Salmon) and all sorts of people have been following and commenting on the New York Times’ rhetorical war against Arianna Huffington and the Huffington Post.... To understand Bill Keller’s first op-ed, for example, a piece of screed called “All the Aggregation That’s Fit to Aggregate”... we need to look past the surface level confrontation.... [W]hile Huffington’s response to Keller got at some of what is most silly and self-serving about his silly and self-serving little diatribe (“patting himself on the back so hard I’d be surprised if he didn’t crack a rib,” as she puts it, is certainly apt).... [T]his particular argument... hinges on the “theft” of words and the “convergence” between new and old media.... [T]his isn’t an argument about anything. What they are most concretely at odds about in that exchange — the little piece of intellectual property which Keller claims Huffington stole from him, and which she then claims he stole from her — is a painfully banal cliché, the notion that old media and new media are “converging.” I don’t care who said it first, and neither should you, because at this point, this is not an idea that can be stolen, any more than one could steal the idea that politicians are corrupt, the American people are getting a raw deal, farmers are suffering, and we need to get back to basics if America is going to be great again. You cannot patent a cliché. Which is why that non-argument demonstrates what’s most interesting — and illustrative — about this exchange: since they are saying the same thing, what they are fighting about is who is going to be privileged with the right to say it.
To put this another way, what is interesting here is that both Keller and Huffington want to say the same thing: they agree on the fact that Real Journalists can and should do Real Journalism, and so they try to portray the other as a mere thief of words, an unimportant parasite.... Aggregators are pirates, while Real Journalists do Real Journalism. And what are Real Journalists? People who aren’t pirate aggregators.
The real problem, however, is that journalists are, by their nature, thieves of words. You can call it what you like; you can say “Possibly I am old-fashioned,” and talk about how “actual journalists are laboring at actual history, covering the fever of democracy in Arab capitals and the fever of austerity in American capitals” (Keller) or you can brag about the “148 full-time editors, writers, and reporters engaged in the serious, old-fashioned work of traditional journalism” (Huffington), but all this “old fashioned” stuff is just a way of covering over something really basic about what “actual” journalists “traditionally” do, all the time: write down what other people say.
They can exercise editorial discretion in how they integrate and harmonize the various quotes they‘ve aggregated. They can confirm, they can contextualize, and they can (very rarely) manage to witness something with their own two eyes. They can produce collages out of stolen scraps. And they should do these things. But at the core of the journalistic process is the act, inescapably, of taking other people’s texts, weaving them together, and then placing them under your byline (with appropriate citation) and profiting from the activity.
The more you talk about piracy, it seems to me, the more you bump into the uncomfortable fact that journalism is only distinguishable from word-piracy because, and to the extent that, we arbitrarily decide that it is.... [W]hile those conventions are under particular stress right now (file this under “the internet”) they were also never quite as stable as we might have liked to think they were.... That line of thinking, however, would take the conversation in a different direction than either Keller or Huffington want it to go. This is because they are not, a such, interested in the social function of “the press”... but rather, in the business of profiting from their activities.... “Real Journalism” talk... is just market fetishizing, a way of mystifying the work of social production that makes “news” possible, so that it can appear to be the original creation of whoever is selling it to you. Never mind all the different people whose unpaid contributions made the production of the story possible (the original tipoff, unquoted sources, quoted subjects, the reference works consulted, etc); they will not be paid or credited for intellectual labor, because of the magic thing that happens when the story has been published: having become news, it will subsequently be considered the sole production of the New York Times or whoever. And if Arianna Huffington steals it, now, she becomes indistinguishable from a Somali pirate....
Exactly so: when posturing in front of the FCC (or in front of customers), journalists will need to make Real Journalism seem as clear and unambiguous as possible, so that they can lay secure claim to being it. Since everyone has agreed to agree that Real Journalism is important to democracy, the people who try to sell their Real Journalism will receive the social sanction for doing so only to the extent that they can clarify and lay claim to their status as such.... Which is where the Somali pirates enter the picture: since journalistic products do not have value without their claim to a stable originality that will never really obtain in practice, people like Keller and Huffington will find it necessary to lay claim to being Real Journalists by conjuring up the figure of the Not Real Journalist.... [W]hat more perfectly illegitimate aggregator of other people’s hard earned capital than the metaphor made real in Somalia?