The Idiot Wind of Internet Journalism, Revealed in One Simple Interview

It takes a fair amount to get my blood boiling at 5:21 a.m., but an NPR Morning Edition interview with a new savior of investigative journalism, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, managed to do it.


The idiot wind of breathless techno-utopianism continues, with Omidyar’s efforts to build from scratch a good site for investigative journalism online.

This sounds great to me, in principle.

I’ve long held that when we subscribe to or buy a “newspaper,” we are not buying the literal, papyrus-based tactile experience of having a newspaper thrown on our front stoop in the morning, with pages whose ink inconveniently stains our fingertips.

No, we’re paying for news, for information, and for the reportage infrastructure that undergirds these enterprises.

In this spirit, Omidyar’s proposal really makes sense. He will dance on the grave of the old delivery method that eBay itself helped to kill (at one point in the interview Omidyar chuckles oddly in apology for having killed the traditional newspaper), and conjure a new online delivery method for investigative journalism.

Technology saves us again, folks!

Except that his concept of journalism, if this interview is indicative, leaves behind not only the 20th century delivery method—a newspaper—but also the ethics, sensibility, and journalistic matrix of the 20th century.

Instead, journalism as Omidyar will deliver it bears the pungency of the idiot elements of life online that a newspaper might perhaps have saved us from in the past.

In sum, Omidyar envisions as the next wave of “investigative journalism” a kind of writing where the reporter’s perspective and “passion” for a topic is front and center, since people don’t “trust institutions” anymore, and where “an opinion” is clear, delivered in this new online genre.

The transcript of this interview doesn’t seem to be available yet; otherwise it would be tempting for me to use the “track changes” editorial function, and make little bubble comments next to every statement in this interview that casually yet confidently subverts the whole idea of journalism.

First, let’s deal with the need for a reader to see that a “reporter” has an opinion. As a moderately-educated 6th grader can tell you, opinions, such as these columns, are not reportage. They are not objective. The purpose of investigative journalism is not to share an “opinion,” but precisely to transcend that narcissistic perspective in the quest for something much bigger: facts, and reality-based narrative of meaningful world events.

Online life, of course, is almost nothing but opinions most of them thoughtless, dumb, and reflexive. It’s about “likes” on Facebook or savage—and savagely ungrammatical and misspelled—comments in the comments section.

It is about, in short, the blog-ification of news.

Maybe Omidyar has in mind a resurgent muckracking sensibility from the 1800s, where exposes on slaughterhouse atrocities or the inhumanity of mental asylums were written with some moral passion and urgency.

If so, fine, but, if not, we’re back to getting the apple of “blogging” that dresses itself up as the orange of “journalism.”

But, never mind journalistic ethics and standards, which commit the cardinal 21st-century sin of being boring:  Omidyar feels that he must present his investigative journalism site this way because, you see, it is what readers want—an opinion.

Ah yes. Humans and their appetites. We want so many things. Kids want to eat a gallon of ice cream and play Sim City all day. Some grown-ups would like to drink a gallon of Jim Beam and watch ESPN all day.

And, as Omidyar’s comment proposes, we should give them whatever they want, since all products, unmoored from institutions, are simply commodities floating out there in the ether. 

Who would know that better than the founder of eBay, the global emporium for the circulation of junk, unmoored from its contexts or natural habitats, and just floating out there as stuff that you might want, valued and validated simply by the extent to which it is wanted?

Newspapers have always competed, and have always tried to deliver what readers want. This is the pulse of the free market, and there is nothing irretrievably wrong with that. Except in those olden days, the Chicago Tribune and, say, the Sun-Times competed within a shared institutional framework of journalistic standards that forbade them from delivering precisely and exactly what the reader “wanted” simply because he wanted it.

Omidyar’s half-articulated rationale for putting the reporter front and center, since people really want that approach, is because we no longer “trust institutions.”  We don’t really trust newspapers. I love it how the founder of eBay seems not to think of the behemoth eBay itself, and its techno-kin, as “institutions.” To which I say: Pot, this is kettle. You’re black.

So, in lieu of having to trust the “institution” of a traditional newspaper, Omidyar explains, people really need to see the “personality” of the writer.

I suppose it’s easier and more rational to trust a celebrity, or a celebrity-reporter—and their “personality” is a more reliable, stolid metric of trustworthiness, than to believe in an “institution,” which ideally serves the stodgy function precisely of transcending the subjective vagaries and occasional violations of its individual members.

Oh, and by the way, the notion of the primacy of the personality of the journalist only subverts about a century of really noble, meritorious ideas of the reporter “getting out of the way” of a story, or the old adage that the reporter is not the story.

Will the plague of celebrity and narcissism ever end?

Journalism has always had its gonzo elements—the “reported memoir,” or the experimental interleaving of personal experience and the story. But that’s not the bread and butter of investigative journalism. Nor should it ever be.

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