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Bearing Witness 2.0: You Can't Spin 10,000 Tweets and Camera Phone Uploads
China just delivered a stunning, real-world demonstration of the changes rocking -- and transforming -- modern journalism.
When deadly riots broke out in the western province of Xinjiang last week, the Chinese government sprang into message control mode. It choked off the Internet and mobile phone service, blocked Twitter and Fanfou (its Chinese equivalent), deleted updates and videos from social networking sites, and scrubbed search engines of links to coverage of the unrest. At the same time, it invited foreign journalists to take a tour of the area.
That's right, it slammed the door in the face of new media -- and offered traditional reporters a front row seat.
China's leaders realized that it's one thing to try to spin the on-the-ground views of bused-in reporters ("To help foreign media to do more objective, fair and friendly reports," in the words of the government's PR agency), but quite another to try to spin the accounts and uploaded images of tens of thousands of Twittering and cell-phone camera-wielding citizens.
The Chinese have clearly learned the lessons of Iran.
The same can't be said about New York Times columnist Roger Cohen who, writing about covering the Iran uprising, recently claimed:
To bear witness means being there -- and that's not free. No search engine gives you the smell of a crime, the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder, or the cadence of a scream.
No news aggregator tells of the ravaged city exhaling in the dusk, nor summons the defiant cries that rise into the night. No miracle of technology renders the lip-drying taste of fear. No algorithm captures the hush of dignity, nor evokes the adrenalin rush of courage coalescing, nor traces the fresh raw line of a welt.
How bizarre is it that Cohen chooses to attack the tools of new-media-fueled reporting by citing the very event that highlights the power of those tools -- and the weakness of his argument?
Indeed, search engines, news aggregation, live-blogging, and "miracles of technology" such as Twitter, Facebook, and real-time video delivered via camera phones, played an indispensable part in allowing millions of people around the world to "bear witness" to what was happening in Iran.
The truth is, you don't have to "be there" to bear witness. And you can be there and fail to bear witness.
Obviously, there is tremendous value in being an eyewitness. But we have to always keep in mind that the conclusions drawn by eyewitnesses are greatly influenced by the eyes doing the witnessing.
Malcolm Muggeridge famously called this "the eyewitness fallacy" -- the tendency of people to see, in eyewitness accounts, what they want to see.
As a longtime writer and editor for the New York Times, Cohen should be particularly aware of the limitations of eyewitness accounts.
"Clad in nondescript clothes and a baseball cap, [a scientist who claims to have worked in Iraq's chemical weapons program for more than a decade] pointed to several spots in the sand where he said chemical precursors and other weapons material were buried. This reporter also accompanied MET Alpha on the search for him and was permitted to examine a letter written in Arabic that he slipped to American soldiers offering them information about the program and seeking their protection." So wrote an embedded Judith Miller, "bearing witness" to the "silver bullet" proof of Iraqi WMD in the Times in April of 2003.
Miller was certainly there to vividly describe "the tremor in the air, the eyes that smolder." And her account feels so real. But it was oh so wrong.
Miller was hardly alone in seeing what she wanted to see when it came to Iraq. On-site reporting, as Cohen notes is not free, but, too often, neither is access. Bob Woodward wrote two books, Bush at War and Plan of Attack, that, in retrospect, glaringly demonstrate the sometimes-high cost of access. Woodward got his eyewitness scoops; the White House got a portrayal of Bush as a scrupulous, honest, highly moral leader. It wasn't accurate, but it sure was a pretty exclusive eyewitness account. It wasn't until a third book, ironically with much less eyewitness accounting, that Woodward belatedly began getting the Bush presidency right.
Another example of the limitations of Cohen's credo that "to bear witness means being there" comes courtesy of his fellow Timesman, executive editor Bill Keller. Three days after the fraudulent Iranian election, and well after the street protests had been revved up and hundreds of videos had been uploaded and thousands of tweets had been posted, Keller -- in Iran to "bear witness" -- reported:
"With this election, Mr. Khamenei and [Mr. Ahmadinejad] appear to have neutralized for now the reform forces that they saw as a threat to their power, political analysts said."
Not exactly a miracle of eyewitness reporting.
In his column on Iran, Cohen writes movingly about being torn when he was forced to leave: "We journalists are supposed to move on. Most of the time, like insatiable voyeurs, we do. But once a decade or so, we get undone, as if in love, and our subject has its revenge, turning the tables and refusing to let us be."
I share his love for impassioned journalism, the kind that earned Upton Sinclair, I.F. Stone, and George Orwell their well-deserved place in history. But this is precisely the kind of journalism that is so often derided and dismissed by those who think the function of journalism is simply to offer up both sides of a story or an issue and then get out of the way.
Cohen says he has left a "chunk" of himself back in Tehran. We should all be leaving chunks of ourselves behind when we encounter not just people demanding their freedom abroad, but those here at home who are losing their jobs, who can't get health insurance, and whose houses are being foreclosed. And we should leave a chunk of ourselves with them not just once every ten years, but every day.
New media is not replacing the need to "bear witness," it is spreading it beyond the elite few, and therefore making it harder for those elite few to get it as wrong as they've gotten it again and again -- from Stalin's Russia to Bush's Iraq.