Competition: the bane of North America’s journalists

May 29th, 2007
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Even back in my days as a journalism student I was vaguely creeped out at the idea of “professors” of “journalism” “ethics” gaining tenured positions down in Florida or whatnot and occasionally pontificating on subjects that seemed oddly detached from everyday concerns.
I couldn’t figure out the source of my uneasiness at the time. It might have had something to do with the muddled thinking associated with the morning-after effects from attending gradual school with Neil Young’s cousin.

In later years, my head eventually cleared and my thinking about journalism evolved. Since most journalists’ work is, by design, public most of the time (except for those who toil behind the scenes, like copy editors), surely what matters most are a journalist’s results. The nature of the work product will often bear directly on his or ethics – which can thereby be judged in the court of public opinion.

Although there are a lot of claims to the contrary, journalism isn’t and never should be confused with a “real” profession. A genuine profession – medicine, law, accounting – is a closed shop by statute, accessible only to those with very particular training, following complex exams administered by members of the caste, and subject to judgment primarily by their peers. But anyone can be a journalist. And that’s as it should be in a free society. Indeed, I describe journalism as an activity, not a work classification, let alone a profession. Anyone can therefore “do” journalism, and some of the best at it are ostensible amateurs. So why indeed shouldn’t questions of “ethics” remain in the public domain?

Still I retain a certain fascination with the pronouncements of journalism professors. So when I spotted the headline “Outsourcing the news business overseas”, my interest was piqued. I assumed the headline was a bitterly ironic take on recent journalistic outrages in the Middle East. These have included (I’m not making any of this up):

  • Employees or stringers of Reuters and other news services using Photoshop to add smoke and flames to Lebanese buildings ostensibly hit by the Israelis, to make the damage appear more severe;
  • An obviously faked attack on a Lebanese ambulance (supposedly by Israeli helicopters), a fraud that journalists fell for and distributed at face value with unseemly eagerness;
  • Various staged scenes of “civilian” “casualties” in Lebanon that appeared to employ the same models lying theatrically on rubble, pretending to be wounded; and
  • At least one “stringer” for a major “western” wire service being arrested for being an active member of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

These examples certainly raise ethical “issues”. Throughout these events, the news organizations in question continued to proclaim their impartiality and reacted with apoplexy to any questioning of their objectivity.

Given the richness of this material, I was anticipating an exciting literary ride through the marbled halls of journalism ethics. To my surprise, the piece by Edward Wasserman, who is Knight professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University, was about, um, outsourcing of certain tasks at certain U.S. media outlets:

And so to media outsourcing. The topic made a small splash early this month when a citywide website in Pasadena, Calif., announced it was hiring a pair of reporters to cover its city council from India. They will watch Internet feeds of meetings. One reporter will be paid $12,000 a year, the other $7,200, no benefits…

Opinions differ as to whether what’s being outsourced is truly news reporting, and The Chicago Tribune’s public editor, Timothy McNulty, correctly points out that stenography shouldn’t be confused with journalism.

A slew of similar examples follow. Professor Wasserman presents outsourcing of journalistic functions as yet another greedy attempt to grub up profits by evil corporate America. But doesn’t that instinctively reached conclusion display the reflexive political bias of so many “objective” journalists? Anyway, isn’t this the kind of miraculous virtual networking motif that the information superhighway was supposed to make possible?

And doesn’t any news media outlet wishing to survive need to be as governed by the imperative of profit as any other business? Newspaper circulation around North America continues to sag and numerous mastheads are sinkholes for investors’ money. If they’re not made profitable, entire outlets will close. That suggests far fewer journalism jobs. Perhaps outsourcing a few jobs will save the rest. These are the same, familiar arguments concerning free trade, competition, creative destruction and wealth creation as have gripped numerous other industries.

Professor Wasserman appears unperturbed by certain other forms of outsourcing – such as the routine practice of hiring locals of unknown political provenance to go out and ”report” among their “contacts” and return the information to the western star journo sitting poolside at the Baghdad Hilton.

Note also the casual snobbery in the assumption that Indians are capable only of “stenography” rather than real journalism. The condescension is kind of nasty, but mostly funny: most daily newspaper/local TV reporting just isn’t that hard, or that time-consuming. It certainly isn’t particularly deep, probing or investigative. If some of the domestic types I’ve met over the years can handle it, I’m not too worried about the average Indian’s prospects.

In fact I think the quality of English that makes its way into North American publications stands to go up. The use of English by ostensibly native speakers has deteriorated woefully over the past 30 years. I’d shudder to subject my copy to any North American under 40.

On the other hand I’ve met numerous immigrants, particularly from the Indian subcontinent, whose English (as a second language) is superior in grammar, usage and vocabulary to most native-born North Americans’. I’d guess it’s a legacy of their rigorous schooling in British-style schools, of a kind that scarcely exist any longer in Britannia herself.

To professor Wasserman, the idea of civic aldermen having their quotes transcribed by Indians in India instead of Americans from, um, any nation the world over, is vastly more outrageous, urgent and damaging to the fabric of American civic life than the idea of hundreds of millions of readers worldwide being routinely fed words and images deliberately falsified to advance a totalitarian ideological purpose.

Others have commented on how one feature of the post-modern/post-western left is its adherents’ tendency to obsess over imaginary problems while ignoring or denying acute threats – and denouncing those who dare raise concerns. So, there you have it. News service employees in the employ of Al Qaeda: no problemo. Literate Indians editing North American community reports: Update your Nostradamus, for the end is nigh!

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