On Breitbart: Norms, Laws, and Accountability in American Journalism

[Update: read Jay Rosen’s account and analysis of how this all turned out.  I agree entirely.]

There’s a post I meant to write after the Shirley Sherrod incident this summer.  Instead it became a lecture that I give to my students in my Media, Government, and Politics seminar at Rutgers.  Given ABC’s announcement last night that he’ll be involved in their election night coverage and analysis, I think it’s time I share the perspective.

We are governed by laws and by norms.  There’s an important difference.  Laws are written down.  You break the law, you face a lawsuit.  Particularly in 21st century litigious America, the power of law can be used equally as sword and as shield (cough, cough, copyright).

Some things can’t (or shouldn’t) be legislated.  Freedom of the press, for instance, is a First Amendment guarantee against government regulation of the press.  We have journalist shield laws, for instance.  There are exceptions — libel and slander, fighting words — but in general we have a strong and well-intentioned tradition of giving the “fourth branch” the freedom to keep the other three branches of government accountable.

Norms are informal agreements.  You break a norm, you face shunning from the community that holds that norm.  “You’ll never work in this town again,” that sort of thing.   For decades, the internal norms of the journalistic profession have been an effective ward against certain types of behavior.  If you falsify a story or plagiarize, you’re done in the profession.  Fired and unhireable.  What’s more, these norms are enforced in a public manner, creating a set of cautionary tales.  Journalists are taught about Janet Cook and “Jimmy’s World,” for instance.

The tools of digital media — the ones that allow me to write this blog, post video to youtube, and post photos to flickr — allow for a beautiful mashup culture, but also a dangerous collapse of context.  Selective editing allows any amoral jerk with Final Cut Pro to create a fake news story out of whole cloth.

Our laws aren’t going to be very useful in stopping such activity, because law is both sword and shield.  The boundaries between journalist and citizen are necessarily fuzzy, and mashups ARE political speech, and should be protected as such.  But that leaves norms to do the heavy lifting of mitigating against false scandal-mongering.

And that brings us to Andrew Breitbart and his protege, James O’Keefe (himself a Rutgers alum).  O’Keefe’s ACORN tape was a perfect example of the collapse of context.  Use a hidden video camera, collect hours of footage of people reacting to awkward questions, then splice the best bits together and announce “scandal.”  It worked, and there was no public reckoning when the truth of the matter came out.  The norms against falsifying stories simply did not operate.  O’Keefe became a star.

Breitbart attempted the same gambit this summer with the Shirley Sherrod video.  Take a half-minute clip out of a 40 minute speech, trumpet that you’ve found a racist in the Obama administration, and let the pageviews just flow in.  The Obama administration overreacted, firing Sherrod before the truth could be known, but that was in response to a perceived reality — that this was going to be *the* story in the news cycle, regardless of how flimsy the evidence.  Breitbart’s gambit didn’t work very well because it was too easy to find out just how selectively the story had been edited.  He did a hack job of his hackery, and so *that* became the story.  Even Bill O’Reilly condemned the actions on Fox News.

At that point, the question really became “how will the journalistic community react?”  At issue is whether any norm of professional accountability is still at work, or whether it’s all just controversy and pageviews.  Breitbart is a public figure and the Sherrod incident was a high-profile event.  Our laws aren’t supposed to govern this one (Breitbart has found enough of a gray area, noting that he just promoted the tapes, but didn’t edit them himself); our norms are.  So if the journalistic community reacts by making him a pariah, then that sends a strong signal about the boundaries of acceptable behavior.  Falsifying a story may make you famous, but there can be serious costs.  If, on the other hand, a few months later Breitbart is back in the news with no mention of his track record, then that also sends a strong signal.  It says that celebrity, controversy, and page views trump everything else.  Getting caught in an elaborate lie only increases your name recognition, and the industry rewards fame more than anything else.

There are conflicting reports about what Breitbart’s role on ABC News will be this Tuesday night.  ABC says it will be “exceedingly minor.”  Breitbart’s own site, bigjournalism.com, says he’ll be “bringing live analysis from Arizona.”  Mediaite says that his inclusion will make it “must-see tv” on Tuesday night.

On Monday, I’ll be updating my students on this.  I won’t be watching this “must-see tv.”  I’ll watch another station.  But what I’m going to tell my students is that ABC is making it clear that, as far as they’re concerned, you should skip the “Media Ethics” class and take “Video Editing” instead.  The only defense we have against the malicious exploitation of the collapse of context is a set of community norms that mitigate against the worst excesses presented by digital communications technology.  Those norms have to be stronger than the drive for a few more pageviews, otherwise the mainstream press becomes identical to the tabloid press.  And those norms are most important in response to high-profile events where the community signals that an activity is out-of-bounds.

ABC, to paraphrase a much younger version of Jon Stewart, “you are hurting America. Please stop hurting America.”