Blogonomics: Impersonating Journalists

I hope that Dean Rotbart isn’t reading Techcrunch, he’d have conniptions after reading this story, put up by Erick Schonfeld yesterday:

Here’s the latest Yahoo rumor that we’re chasing: The Yahoo board of directors met earlier today and authorized chairman Roy Bostock, not CEO Jerry Yang, to call Ballmer about re-starting negotiations.

There’s a mini-debate in Schonfeld’s comments about whether this kind of thing constitutes journalism. Rotbart certainly thinks that it doesn’t, and that it’s "dangerous". Here he is on a similar blog entry from Paul Kedrosky:

Bloggers aren’t mainstream financial journalists and my panel of bloggers argued consistently that the world needs both. I remain unpersuaded.

I believe the greatest benefit financial bloggers offer is to express well-reasoned opinion based upon demonstrable logic and facts…

Where I fail to find the value is in taking shortcuts with the facts and fact-gathering.

I asked Rotbart about this by email. Here’s some of what he said:

To me it is dangerous to do too good an impression of a bona fide journalist without being one. That is because many people will mistake bloggers for journalists…

Impersonating a journalist, especially for those who have a knack for it, is kind of like building a knock-off Rolex. It looks a lot like the real thing, probably even feels a lot like it, but it’s a fake. And when it comes to the qualities of a true journalist — i.e. accountable, transparent, non-agenda driven and fact-based, Paul’s Rolex just won’t perform in a genuine crunch. I know you may not believe that mainstream journalists fit my characterization of the profession either. Sadly, many don’t. But as a whole the journalism profession does a fabulous job upholding high standards, something I’m afraid that the blogosphere doesn’t yet mirror…

I would welcome a big banner on Paul’s site reading, "I am not a journalist, so don’t mistake me for one."…

It is the posturing of some bloggers as serious journalists with ‘insider’ sources that disturbs me. Anyone can pretend to have sources. Anyone can ‘play’ journalist, even while avoiding all the professional requirements and checks-and-balances of a real journalist.

Now this is the same Rotbart who said this, while moderating the econobloggers panel at the Milken conference (see about 52 minutes in):

If you read the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, which, depending on your political persuasion, people either hate or love, but most of the people who love it, love it because it is opinion, but it’s opinion strongly based on fact.

I don’t think that anybody (other than Rotbart) on the panel would ever agree that the WSJ editorial page was generally "strongly based on fact". But it’s clear that Rotbart is holding up the WSJ editorial page as the kind of thing which opinionated journalism should be, contra blogs.

Which brings me to yesterday’s op-ed on that very page from Cyril Moulle-Berteaux, which I blogged yesterday. It was 1,100 words long, and devoted to the proposition that, in the words of the headine, "The Housing Crisis Is Over".

Moulle-Berteaux was identified only as "managing partner of Traxis Partners LP, a hedge fund firm based in New York". But it didn’t take long for my commenters to find out that his fund is massively long homebuilders and mortgage lenders, and that he was clearly and shamelessly talking his book.

Rotbart says that true journalism is "accountable, transparent, non-agenda driven and fact-based"; in the case of Moulle-Berteaux’s op-ed, it’s hard to see how any of the first three apply, and there are many questions about the fourth as well.

In contrast, when someone like Schonfeld blogs unsubstantiated rumors, he’s being entirely transparent about it; he’s not presenting them as substantiated fact, and there’s no chance that a reader will mistake it for such a thing.

I see no danger to journalism here. The dangers to journalism come from within: they come when people like Judy Miller push a government agenda in the NYT, or when the WSJ editorial page lets hedge fund managers talk their own book without proper disclosure.

Rotbart tells me that "the public has a need and right to know that these bloggers are practicing journalism without proper credentials or accountability," as though things like credentials really matter. In fact, the public has a need and a right to know when journalists are practicing shoddy journalism. If a blogger dares to repeat a rumor without substantiating it, no harm is done at all.

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