Blog Post

The shock of inclusion: Why the NSA story has turned journalist against journalist

In a Monday piece for the New York Times, media writer David Carr looks at how the ongoing revelations about the NSA and its surveillance of U.S. citizens have turned journalists against each other, with people like David Gregory of NBC questioning whether Guardian writer Glenn Greenwald deserves to be considered a “real” journalist, because of his dedication to leakers like Edward Snowden and Bradley Manning (now known as Chelsea) and the cause they represent.

But this is about far more than just the NSA story: beneath the surface — and increasingly above the surface — what we are seeing is an immune-system response from the journalism establishment, or what Clay Shirky has called the “shock of inclusion” caused by the rise of a networked fourth estate.

This can be seen in a number of ways, both large and small: it’s fairly overt in the case of comments like Gregory’s, or when Time correspondent Michael Grunwald muses on Twitter about looking forward to a drone strike taking out Julian Assange — a man that even former NYT executive editor Bill Keller has agreed deserves to be protected by the First Amendment as much as any mainstream journalist. But it’s also visible in more subtle ways, as when Carr’s own newspaper and others choose to refer to Greenwald as a “blogger” rather than a journalist.

A culture clash — us vs. them

Carr even contributes his own personal vignette highlighting the cultural response from the insular journalistic mainstream, when he describes a “very proper lunch” he attended in the British countryside along with Julian Assange, and his uncomfortable response when the WikiLeaks founder said that he thought the primary requirements for being a journalist at the New York Times were “the ability to lie and obfuscate.”

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The unavoidable sense one gets — not just from Carr’s piece, but from all the other responses by Gregory and others to the NSA story and to WikiLeaks, and even to events like Reddit’s attempt to contribute to the reporting around the Boston bombings — is of an “us vs. them” mentality, in which bloggers like Greenwald or more extreme personalities like Julian Assange are treated like invaders storming the barricades of the journalism establishment. As Carr puts it:

“The larger sense I get from the criticism directed at Mr. Assange and Mr. Greenwald is one of distaste — that they aren’t what we think of as real journalists. Instead, they represent an emerging Fifth Estate composed of leakers, activists and bloggers who threaten those of us in traditional media. They are, as one says, not like us.”

The shock of inclusion

Media theorist Clay Shirky described this phenomenon in a 2010 essay, in which he called this kind of response from the media establishment the “shock of inclusion.” His examples were things like the use of blogs as a reporting tool for citizen journalists during the demonstrations in Iran, and the London bombings of 2005, but his overall point is the same: that the media industry is struggling to handle the same onslaught of “user-generated content” as many other industries (such as the photography business), and it is mostly failing.

Assange and Wikileaks

In some cases, that content is coming from people committing random acts of journalist using Twitter, or from Reddit during the bombings in Boston, but it is also coming from new entities like WikiLeaks, which journalism professor Jay Rosen has called a “stateless news organization,” and from hybrid blogger/journalists like Greenwald — who has no journalism degree and didn’t work his way up through the traditional establishment, but is currently beating many traditional journalists at their own game. As Shirky describes it:

What’s going away is a world where the news was only made by professionals, and consumed by amateurs who couldn’t do much to produce news on their own, or to distribute it, or to act on it en masse. We are living through a shock of inclusion, where the former audience is becoming increasingly intertwined with all aspects of news, as sources who can go public on their own, as groups that can both create and comb through data in ways the professionals can’t, as disseminators and syndicators and users of the news.

It’s not about journalists, but journalism

Shirky also notes that it isn’t just Twitter or the sources going direct (to use blogging pioneer Dave Winer’s phrase), but entire new enterprises like Huffington Post or BuzzFeed that look at journalism and media in different ways — ways that may resonate more with readers. As he puts it:

“The shock of inclusion is “coming from the outside in, driven not by the professionals formerly in charge, but by the former audience. It is also being driven by new news entrepreneurs, the men and women who want to build new kinds of sites and services that assume, rather than ignore, the free time and talents of the public.”

I think we should also remember that what’s at stake isn’t just the future of journalism or media, or academic questions about who is a journalist: in an environment where David Gregory is asking why Glenn Greenwald shouldn’t be charged with a crime for “aiding and abetting” Edward Snowden, and where the Guardian writer’s partner is being detained and searched by British police for carrying information about the NSA leaks, there is a very real risk attached to what we call journalism today — and therefore attached to everyone who practices it, regardless of whether they are traditional journalists or not.

More than anything, we — not just journalists or the media but society as a whole — need to support and defend journalism and what it means, not just specific journalists or specific media entities. The First Amendment and what it stands for is too important to let the debate devolve into an industry bun fight over who is a “real” journalist and who isn’t.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Vladimir Melnik and Flickr user Carolina Georgatou

16 Responses to “The shock of inclusion: Why the NSA story has turned journalist against journalist”

  1. express

    It’s worse than new vs. old journalism.

    Many establishment press have strong ties to the government, ranging from valuable sources to giving deference to government requests not to publish certain information.

    The government has gone all-out in order to block leaks and severely punish leakers. It would require great credulousness to think the government hasn’t called in all favors from the establishment press, too. That including having them try to discredit the leakers and their channels to the public.

  2. PBCliberal

    What was the first amendment press? That amendment wasn’t there to protect “professional journalists,” they’re a relatively recent invention. It was there to protect pamphleteers, like the anonymous writers who wrote the Federalist Papers who turned out to also be the founding fathers.

    It is easy to get hung up comparing the current crop of writers and bloggers with any number of recent incarnations of businesses that were “the press” and argue over pedigree.

    You don’t have to go back very far to find the first amendment protecting all manner of scoundrel who started wars but still had a “press” that was big business (“You furnish the pictures, I’ll furnish the war”), so the “more decorous world” folks may be old but not old enough by half.

    Maybe its time for the journalists who think the founding fathers provided a special amendment for synergistic media empire corporations to go back to journalism school and study some constitutional history. They’ll find the real pedigree of the journalist to be more like the blogger and independent writer-for-hire than anything we’ve seen for a couple hundred years.

  3. chaletfor2

    The situation is a a natural outcome of the lousy reporting for decades that have allowed our country to be legislated into a Third World country with a handful of richest of the rich and the rest a bunch of peons. And now spying on citizens to deter any possible sign of revolt. “Journalists” didn’t notice? shut up to get ahead? went along to get ahead financially? Eventually there is push back from any source that has a conscience and more importantly the guts that used to be a criteria of journalism–even at the beginning of the country–and before there were journalism schools. Truly investigative journalists have been spurned for years by news organizations, denigrated by their peers, called strident, loose canons or even unpatriotic America haters. That’s why the country is now ungovernable–and most people have no idea what is happening or, more importantly, why. Now they may find out, unless of course, the true journalists meet untimely deaths….

  4. Not the easiest article to follow but isn’t all these debate more indication of why we need the media in the first? Each side here, whether the Guardian or besieged journos like Greenwald all represent some ‘truth’ coming from one side or other.

    The truth here (story at the bottom of it all) is a conglomerate of all the noise each party is generating. All I see is different people questioning what the other writers have penned. Two things: That can’t be bad and it’s why the craft of journalism exists.

  5. As to the rest, the mainstream press has done a horrible job on Snowden, and it’s only starting to change. Parading members of Congress to say “everything is okay” because of their oversight is laughable. Congress passes unconstitutional legislation everyday, or at least they would if they could pass any legislation. True court review is the test.

    Also, here the information is being seized first, and then they get a court order to look at it. That is highly questionable, but never mentioned in the mainstream press.

    Finally, they talk about the NSA programs making us safer. We’ll we’d also be safer if the cops could go door to door searching houses looking for criminals and criminal activity, but they can’t because of the protections of the Bill of Rights. The founding fathers realized the abuses that would occur if members of law enforcement can decide what they can collect and what they can look at. We’re just starting to hear of some of those abuses now, and it’s not because the mainstream press was on top of this story.

  6. David Gregory, while seemingly a nice guy, is not a real journalist. He attacked an NRA commercial, without noting the he himself was a target in the NRA commercial. He’s a hack, and Meet the Press had gone downhill since he took over.

  7. I’m all for good, solid journalism. What I’m not for is outrage p*rn, scare headlines or the type of hysterics that The Guardian is willing to allow Glenn Greenwald to peddle. It’s undermining the pursuit of an informed, reasonable debate about surveillance because Greenwald is a self-aggrandizing personality. What is sad is that The Guardian seems willing to allow Greenwald to flush the paper’s reputation down the loo.

    David Miranda was detained for 9 hours not for being a “real journalist” but for holding stolen information for Greenwald & Poitras. The debate over that is which law would have been more appropriate to use and the UK government guessed wrong.

      • blubert

        uh… provide any link, even by Greenwald, that denies Miranda was carrying documents from Poitras and/or Greenwald that at the very least related to the Snowden documents, and probably included at least some of the Snowden documents. This is in every piece of journalism about the story. All the Snowden documents are stolen. Most of them have not been published and even Greenwald has admitted that publishing all of them would be very damaging to national security. they are all state secrets and some of them, undoubtedly, could be damaging to national security in the wrong hands. that the government knows some of what Snowden stole could be damaging, and wants to get it back/stop its spread as much as possible, is a far simpler explanation than that they thought a public detainment of Greenwald’s partner would somehow intimidate him, since it obviously would not.

        • blubert, way to turn things around. And very consistent with the divide on this debate. Just as some people want to ignore the restraints on search and seizure, now you’re wanting to make it guilty until proven innocent. Keep thinking like that and we’ll have a great government that we can fully trust. /sarc

          But ignoring the vagueness of what the British Government said, how do you explain their letting Miranda go if he was carrying stolen documents or doing anything illegal?

    • chaletfor2

      You do not know what solid journalism is. Your mini rant only shows ignorance of Glenn Greenwald’s character. It is fact free assertion with unsubstantiated adjectival name-calling.