James Grimmelmann has posted an extremely lengthy and thoughtful piece on LawMeme about the whole Laurie Garrett e-mail brouhaha. (This is the saga of a well-known Pulitzer-garlanded science journalist who attended the Davos conference this year, sent a bunch of her friends a sizable e-mail describing her experiences, and then became outraged when she discovered that somehow one of those friends had forwarded it beyond her circle, and it wound up all over the Net.)
Grimmelmann examines the controversy from so many different angles that I’m surprised he misses the one that seems most obvious to me.
I’m sure it was upsetting to Garrett to find that words she intended for a small group got broadcast online. I don’t envy her. But I think what irked a lot of people on the Net was the feeling they got that the story she told her friends was very different from the one she was likely to tell readers of her “official” work.
Rightly or wrongly, a lot of people feel that reporters know a lot more than what they actually put in their stories — that the “real story” of our times is the one that reporters tell each other over beers, and in for-private-distribution-only e-mails, rather than the one they tell in their formal stories.
The Garrett episode seemed to confirm that. Here was a journalist returning from “hobnobbing” with the global elite and announcing that “the world isn’t run by a clever cabal. It’s run by about 5,000 bickering, sometimes charming, usually arrogant, mostly male people who are accustomed to living in either phenomenal wealth, or great personal power.”
Her e-mail is a casual, unvarnished and sometimes blunt assessment of the poor state of the world (“The global economy is in very very very very bad shape”). With a little editing, it could have turned into a good magazine column. For all I know, that was Garrett’s intention. But her reaction of outrage and violation at the viral-like spread of the e-mail suggests otherwise — and reinforces readers’ hunch that they’ve just gotten a fleeting glimpse of how journalists talk to each other when they think the mike is turned off.
Which, in a roundabout way, brings us to blogs.
A lot of the energy in the weblog world is anger at old-line journalism for its sloppiness, its biases, but most of all, I think, its unresponsiveness. Many people who blog get justifiably excited at the prospect of presenting their own words without relying on an intermediary reporter.
In a post today labeled “Why Weblogs are cool,” Dave Winer explains why he prefers presenting his views on his blog to offering quotes to a News.com or N.Y. Times reporter: “People reading the article would not likely find out what I really think,” whereas on a blog, “I get to say what I want, and I can get it right.” And he’s absolutely right. No reporter can present an individual’s complex and changing views as faithfully as that individual himself — and now we have the technology for virtually anyone with a computer and a Net connection to do so.
Dave also happens to be an unusually honest, open and spontaneous writer: That’s one of the things that makes his blog special. But not everyone is so open. In fact, there are even people who don’t want the world to know “what they really think.” In my experience most politicians and business leaders fall into this group. I’m not enthusiastic about giving blogs to politicians because it seems to me they will use the format as another outlet for the same old spin. They won’t spontaneously reveal themselves. It requires persistence and effort to dig out “what they really think” — or at least what they really say and do — and tell it to the world.
The value journalists continue to provide in a “disintermediated,” Net-enabled world — when they are doing their jobs right, of course — is to continue to ask public figures the uncomfortable questions that they won’t choose to answer on their own.
I think that the people who stumbled upon Garrett’s e-mail felt that it provided them with an informative and interesting glimpse of what she really thought about Davos — which is a gathering of just the sort of leaders who are unlikely to say “what they really think” in public.
That is precisely what a lot of people in blog-land actually want from journalists. And instead, Garrett told them, sorry folks, you can’t have that, it’s for private consumption only. Too bad.
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