I just heard a terrific NPR "All Things Considered" piece on George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," and since that essay and Orwell's other writings influenced my piece in the Summer 2006 Montana Journalism Review below, it seemed like a good time to post this up here. The odd numbers floating in the text are references to the Endnotes at the very end of the document.
Here's the full bib citation:
Boese, C. (2006) "Challenging the Power Structure." Montana Journalism Review. Summer 2006, Number 35. pp. 8-10.
Challenging the Power Structure
During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. George Orwell
By Christine Boese
Picture the prototypical American "town square," the idealistic vision of Jeffersonian democracy: gathering places that people used to pass through almost every day, places that were the center of community life. Announcements and ideas were disseminated in these spaces. Anyone could set up a soapbox and start talking, although, as Clem Work has found in his research into the enforcement of the Alien and Sedition Act in Missoula in the early 20th century, there were very real attempts to squelch certain kinds of talk in some public squares.
Where do people gather to participate in their communities now? Aside from street festivals and parades, the few civic gatherings that remain take place in restricted or private spaces, in schools, churches, shopping malls, sports arenas. We have protections in the Constitution not only for speech, but also for the right to assemble. Activists of many stripes are bemoaning the loss of the true "commons," spaces that are set aside as the public domain, shared spaces that belong to all.
Journalists often have an explicit goal to cover community activities, and as such, they monitor and report on what happens in the "commons." But as the commons disappear, more often than not, journalists seek entry into the private spaces where decisions that affect communities are made. One unintended result of this shift is that journalists focus less on their communities and instead become willing satellites circling a class of power brokers, somewhat like the courtiers during Shakespeare's time.
A journalist has an ethical obligation to go where people are exercising their right to assemble, to monitor and cover the community, even if that community is a "global village." While face-to-face commons are disappearing, there still are places where people gather, discussing the events that affect their lives, participating in democracy in a most direct way.
And in the online "blogosphere," people are gathering. They're writing and editing their own customized interactive "newspapers" with headline readers and research they've done on their own, weighing and analyzing, making up their own minds instead of letting some editor they never voted for in the employ of some mass media conglomerate tell them what to think.
While the term "blog" was accepted into the Merriam Webster dictionary in 2004,1 few people profess to know very much about weblogs or the blog movement. If they do have an impression, it's often of self-obsessed teenagers putting too much private information online, or of anonymous and irresponsible talk radio-style ranting of the far right and left.
The problem is that blog software and the blog movement are two very different things. Blog software is a tool that can be used for a wide range of purposes. The "blog movement" is a social phenomenon having a very real impact at this moment in history.
The vast majority of what's being put online using blog software has very little to do with the "blog movement" per se. There are cooking recipe group blogs. About.com was converted to blog software several years ago. The University of Minnesota library is giving students blog space for learning, a project called UThink.2 Harvard Law School is using blogs to supplement teaching and discussions on legal issues.3 I have a poetry blog, my own idiosyncratic Norton Anthology, if you will.4
I often tell people that blog software is a poor person's content management system. It's like an empty coffee cup. What you pour into the cup is only bound by the limits of your imagination.
The database behind blog software is a terrific tool to hold all kinds of information for collaborative interactive access. I believe blog software will gobble up the entire Web because of the power of syndication (RSS) and headline feed readers.5
The "blog movement" is another thing altogether, and it's having considerable impact on journalism and journalistic ethics.