Forward to next post: Damn kids today! With their newfangled chrononaut suits!
The consistently interesting zunguzungu takes note of the ongoing slapfight between Arianna Huffington and New York Times editor-in-chief Bill Keller, who has now asserted that “in Somalia” what the Huffington Post does “would be called piracy.”
What’s interesting about this has nothing to do with the well-documented failings of the Huffington Post (celebrity-penned anti-vaccine nonsense; a business model that depends on lots of writers working for free) or of the New York Times (too many examples to list; start with the runup to the invasion of Iraq). The squabble between Keller and Huffington, and particularly Keller’s latest rhetorical turn, would be striking if both publications were three times better than they are, or three times worse. Zunguzungu observes:
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. We have social conventions that determine what is and isn’t okay to say and steal, and how to do so—institutional rules defining the difference between socially useful activities and socially un-useful activities—but while 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. Thi’ is not to say that they aren’t necessary, useful, and worth retaining, of course. They just aren’t written in stone, nor were they received from on high; they are a contingent function of what it is that we expect “the press” to do as part of the social function they fulfill. Which is why, ultimately, the kind of society that we believe “good journalism” will serve will be the determinant of what standards we use in defining what is good in journalism.Until 1891, American copyright law deemed the work of non-Americans to be in the public domain, which is certainly one way to jump-start an indigenous publishing industry into profitability. It does seem that, often, the people we condemn as “pirates” turn out to be simply those who got into the game just a little bit later than the original players.
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”—for which, see Jay Rosen’s manifesto—but rather, in the business of profiting from their activities. This should not surprise us, but neither should it escape our notice: their job is to make information commodities, to secure ownership of them, and then find some way to sell them. “Real Journalism” talk, in that context, 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. Once we have decided where ownership of information begins—whose intellectual labor counts and whose does not—then we can proceed to sell it.