As hierarchical institutions begin to lose their grip on our culture, a great many things we used to take for granted are now up in the air. This is a permanent fruit of what Jay Rosen calls “the Great Horizontal,” and we really have no idea where it’s taking us. Our culture is based upon hierarchical layers of “expertise,” some of it licensed by the state. This produces order, which Henry Adams called “the dream of man.”
It also produces elites, the governing class, those who call the shots for others not so fortunate as to occupy the higher altitudes. This is the 1% against which the occupiers bring their protests, their dis-order.
We used to think that elites and hierarchical order were necessary for the well-being of all, but that idea is being challenged as knowledge — the protected source of power (and elevation) — is being spread sideways along the Great Horizontal. It’s not that we’re so much smarter than we used to be; it’s that the experts don’t seem so “expert” anymore, because the knowledge that gave them their status isn’t protected today. Anybody can access it with the touch of a finger.
This is giving institutions fits, and each one is fighting for its very life against the inevitable flattening that’s taking place. Medicine wants no part of smart and informed patients and neither does the insurance industry. The legal world scoffs at the notion that they’re in it for themselves as they occupy legislatures and create the laws that work on their behalf. Higher education increasingly touts the campus experience over what’s being learned, because they all know that the Web has unlimited teaching capacity. Government needs its silos to sustain its bureaucracy, but the Great Horizontal cuts across them all.
And then there’s the media, which brings me to The Poynter Institute.
Exercising its position as the arbiter of institutional journalistic ethics, Poynter publicly chided one of its most valuable treasures, Jim Romenesko, over what it called “incomplete attribution” of some of his source material. That’s their way of saying he failed to put quotes around some pieces of copy that were lifted from the articles for which he was providing links. That’s what Romenesko has done for Poynter since 1999 — provide links to content about journalism that he felt was worth reading. He’s held in high esteem by most within the profession, and has received nearly unanimous support over the suggestion — not an actual accusation — that he was practicing plagiarism. Romenesko didn’t just drive traffic to websites; he had his eye on the cutting edge of the institutional changes hammering journalism. His RSS feed has been in my reader since he first provided one. Before that, it was a newsletter.
Romenesko was going to retire at the end of the year, but after the public hand slap from his employer, he resigned this week. He said his heart was “no longer in the job.” I don’t blame him a bit.
Plagiarism, to be sure, is a serious ethical issue for journalism. By failing to provide quotation marks, wrote Poynter editor Julie Moos, those sections “may appear to belong to Jim when they in fact belong to another.”
“We are in uncharted territory, marked by uncertainty, which suggests caution. We will continue to evaluate this situation and to be as transparent as possible about what we learn and decide.”
Integrity isn’t determined by pedantic adherence to a set of rules. That’s the bedrock of hierarchical order, where he who is in charge makes the rules. Integrity is a complex (honesty, truthfulness, accuracy) but simple internal character attribute, the virtue of which lies in its consistency. The problem comes in judging it entirely on external appearances, for it’s the full weight of a person’s heart that determines integrity. From my limited view, Jim Romenesko hasn’t a dishonest bone in his body and is respected for his integrity, so this harsh and public suggestion is based on the “appearance” of hypocrisy. As it turns out, Poynter says they were reacting to an inquiry by a reporter from the Columbia Journalism Review, so they acted to spank Romenesko publicly ahead of what they expected would be a “look what I found” piece from the CJR. If that’s indeed the case, it’s especially pathetic.
But Jim Romenesko isn’t Poynter’s problem. The organization’s real conundrum is that it has no choice but to defend the indefensible, journalistic poppycock disguised as the self-governance of an institution in disruption. As a non-profit organization, Poynter must raise funds from a variety of people and organizations, and those who feel under attack are more likely to give a buck than those who aren’t. It’s why every 501.c.3 has an “enemy” that they must overcome and why they deal with crises four times a year.
Here’s a line from the fundraising section of the Poynter site:
Your support of Poynter makes clear your belief that the work of our democracy is too complex and too important for us to be informed by anything less than the very best journalism we can get.
I don’t question the sincerity of those who believe this, but it’s extremely narrow and represents only those who benefit from what it preaches — a group of “qualified” elites who, by virtue of their supreme knowledge, training and skill, are able to figure things out for us poor, stupid morons from main street. It rings hollow, because the people it’s supposed to serve stopped trusting in it in the mid 70s, and now many more people distrust the press than have any faith in it at all. It’s the stuff of the 1%, which the whole occupy movement is resisting, a hegemony that greases the wheels of those who manipulate it so that it can remain atop its self-created pedestal.
This doesn’t do the institution of journalism a lick of good, but it’s wonderful fundraising fodder. One of the complaints that the pros have about so-called “amateur” journalism is its sloppiness when it comes to the sacred canons, so Poynter is in the inevitable position — as defenders of the canons — to ALWAYS act on their behalf and avoid even the appearance of a violation. It finds itself between a rock and a hard place here, unable to bring the enemy of common sense into any argument.
If Poynter was really concerned about the future of journalism, it would take the lead in its reinvention. That is impossible, however, if your core funding mission is the protection of the crumbling status quo.
Most of the stuff I’ve read from Poynter has come through Jim Romenesko. Now that he’s gone, I’ve deleted the RSS feed to make room for the one from jimromenesko.com.
I can’t imagine I’m alone.