Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Bill Moyers and the Emergence of U.S. Citizen Journalism

Power of government creates need for investigative news

by Ronda Hauben

Bill Moyers is a highly respected professional journalist, an American journalist who stands out as one who is willing to speak truth to power, even at the risk of losing his job. Moyers has been a journalist since he was 15 years old, and yet he considers himself a citizen journalist. After an absence of more than two years, Moyers returned to PBS (public broadcasting system) on Friday, April 27 with the return of his show the "Bill Moyers Journal." (1)

This initial Friday night program provides a helpful framework to use in looking at the nature of citizen journalism and considering what are the essential factors needed for citizen journalism to develop in the U.S.

Often citizen journalism has been referred to as a journalism of "amateurs" as opposed to "professionals," as two prominent Columbia Journalism School professionals Samuel Freedman (2) and Nicholas Leeman (3) have argued, or as a journalism of those "who lack training as journalists" in contrast to those who are "trained journalists," as a recent article in LinuxInsider proposes. (4)

The origin and development of citizen journalism presents the basis for a very different model, however. The basis is for a collaboration of journalists as a Fourth Estate, and of citizens who are concerned with overseeing what government does so as to monitor the use and abuse of power.

The concept of citizen journalism was first popularized by the Korean online newspaper OhmyNews. When OhmyNews was started in February 2000, it was with the goal of transforming the conservative domination of the media landscape in South Korea. Oh Yeon-ho, the founder and CEO of OhmyNews, had worked as a journalist for the progressive publication "Mal" for the previous decade. His experience taught him that even when he wrote a significant story, it received little attention. When one of the conservative newspapers in South Korea covered a comparable story, however, other conservative news media provided coverage, so the story received serious attention. In starting OhmyNews, Oh was determined to bring about a change in the media environment in South Korea so that "'the quality of news determined whether it won or lost,' not the power and prestige of the media organization that printed the article." (5)

The creation of OhmyNews originally took the form of a media organization with a small staff of reporters and editors who focused on covering a carefully chosen but limited set of stories. With the concept "every citizen is a reporter," however, readers were invited to submit articles, many of which were included as part of the OhmyNews publication. The writers whose articles appeared in OhmyNews were paid a small fee. Since then OhmyNews has grown substantially. The question is raised whether there is any similar development growing up in the U.S. In order to answer the question, it is important to determine the necessary characteristics for a media to be called "citizen journalism."

On the first regular episode of the Bill Moyers Journal, Moyers invited Jon Stewart and Josh Marshall as his guests. Stewart insists he isn't a journalist though Moyers differs. Stewart's program "The Daily Show" which appears on cable television, is considered by many of his devoted fans to be closer to what is "news" than the majority of programs which call themselves news or news media. Stewart, however, describes his show as close to "an editorial cartoon."

On his initial Friday evening show, Moyers played some clips from a recent Daily Show. One clip was an extract from the testimony presented to the U.S. congress by U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. The clip showed Gonzales claiming "I can't recall" in many different instances in response to nearly all the questions he was asked by the congress. Stewart comments that at first he didn't understand what the significance was of Gonzales' response. Eventually, however, he began to think he had figured out what it represented. Describing the motives of those in the Bush administration, he says: (6)

"They would rather us believe them to be wildly incompetent and inarticulate than to let us know anything about how they operate. And so, they do constitutionally-mandated things most of the time, but they don't -- they fulfill the letter of their obligation to checks and balances, but not the intent."

Stewart is commenting on why Gonzales' testimony on April 19, 2007 to the U.S. congress did not explain anything about how the decision had been made in the situation that was the subject of the hearing. Eight U.S . attorneys appointed by the justice department which Gonzales heads were fired. These attorneys were from different regions of the U.S. and so at first the pattern of justice department activity was not obvious to congress which is charged with overseeing the activity of the justice department.

Stewart comments that Gonzales was willing "to look like a pinhead" rather than provide the needed information for congress to carry out its oversight functions over the justice department. Elaborating on the importance of such oversight functions, Stewart explains (7):

"The election moment is merely the American public saying, 'We'd rather you be president than that guy.' That's it. The next four years, though, you still have to abide by the oversight process that is there to prevent this kind of bizarre sort of cult-like atmosphere that falls along. I mean, I accept that kind of veil of secrecy around Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, but I don't accept that around our government."

Another guest on Bill Moyer's show was Joshua Micah Marshall, the head of TPM Media, an online media company which is located in the flower district of New York City. TPM Media employs several full time reporter bloggers who work with Marshall. It publishes and The description of TPMmuckraker explains that " is a news blog dedicated to chronicling, explaining and reporting on public corruption, political scandal and abuses of the public trust of all sorts." A more elaborate description on the Web site says (8):

"As the site's name implies, it is inspired by the early 20th century tradition of journalistic muckraking and built on the technologies of the early 21st. Our aim is to produce journalism that is pugnacious, lively, independent, meticulously factual and fun."

The mechanism of funding is listed as "paid advertising and contributions from readers."
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