If and when I run for office again, and if and when I am taken seriously enough that someone more effective and influential than the editor of Now magazine’s website decides to try and dig up some embarrassing photos of me (sorry Josh, but seriously, that was the best you could do?), they will not have a difficult time.
I belong to a generation that has grown up on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. (Heck, I’m pretty sure I even have a neglected MySpace page floating around somewhere…oh yeah, there it is.) As a result, many of my most candid and ill-advised moments have been and will continue to be documented and made public. 99% of the time, I’m not even the one posting them. The tools of the social web allow anyone to not only upload photos and videos of me, but also to tag me in them for easy searching and indexing.
Exploring someone’s online presence has become a way of doing a quick-and-easy background check. Often, maybe even most of the time, that’s a perfectly legitimate thing. If a political candidate has, oh, I don’t know, made homophobic remarks, or dropped LSD while driving, or gotten naked with a bunch of minors (all entirely hypothetical examples off the top of my head, of course) those are probably things I want to know about, and they may or may not influence whether or not I vote for that person.
But we should also, I think, back away from the assumption that the second someone uncovers some photos of a candidate goofing around with friends or demonstrating a momentary lapse in judgment that automatically means the candidate must resign. Commenting on the recent resignation of BC NDP candidate Ray Lam, even NDP Leader Carole James seemed a bit uncomfortable with how things went down. “It’ll be interesting to watch politics over the next 10 to 15 years,” she said, “when you have an entire generation of young people who’ve grown up with their lives public on Facebook and on Twitter. It’ll be very interesting to see how that shifts.”
Hopefully it will shift like this. If someone has demonstrated a pattern of bad judgment, or done or said something highly objectionable, they should answer for it. But one or two “gotcha” photos? Should that really disqualify one from public service? Ultimately it’s up to voters to decide, but I tend to think not.
One of the most important functions of newspapers, we are told, is that they produce professional content that no one else can. Investigating and breaking news stories is the most commonly referenced example. “If newspapers didn’t exist,” the argument goes, “bloggers wouldn’t have anything to write about.”
There is some truth to that statement: the vast majority of chatter in the blogosphere is reaction and commentary rather than original reporting. Even opinions and analysis are usually rehashed from professionals. Last month at the 2009 Interactive Exchange (IN09) Richard Stursberg, Executive Vice-President of English Services for CBC, repeatedly insisted that blogs and web 2.0 websites do not create content, they only distribute content. “If old media dies,” Stursberg told conference attendees, weeks before announcing massive layoffs at his corporation, “I don’t know who’s going to make content.” (Paraphrased from memory.)
Instead of being honest about examples of bloggers contributing to the news industry, old media, and newspapers in particular, would rather bury those examples in favour of promoting the popular image of bloggers as parasites to media companies.
When I was on staff at Torontoist, a popular Toronto news, events, and culture blog, we accepted with a sense of inevitability that whenever we were lucky enough (or, dare I say, good enough) to get an exclusive story of any significance it would usually appear in Toronto’s newspapers the next day without credit. Proving that we were the source of many of these stories was almost impossible of course, but there was a definite pattern, and I’m told journalists at the Toronto Star sometimes confided privately that we were indeed being cribbed. And then there were some situations, including this January 2008 incident involving the Toronto Sun, where full sections of our writing happened to appear word-for-word in print without attribution. (In that case, the Sun ended up apologizing, kinda.)
This past week, my old Torontoist colleague Jonathan Goldsbie authored an excellent example of the kind light that bloggers can shine through the cracks that news stories pass through as they fall. Responding to a reader letter, Goldsbie decided to get to the bottom of a Virgin Radio bus ad that some found offensive. (And by “some,” I mean anyone who thinks it’s not particularly funny for advertisements shown in the transit system to make jokes about subway suicide.) Goldsbie did a lot of original research, connected dots that others had missed, and ultimately was the catalyst for having the ads pulled.
There’s a reason newspapers are behaving this way. Their industry is in free fall and they don’t know what to do about it or where the bottom is. No one does. So they’re afraid, and fear triggers “behaviors of escape and avoidance.” (Wikipedia)
That’s a reason, but not an excuse. The smart thing to do would be to embrace what may be early glimmers of the future of journalism. Unfortunately, there are indications that at least some papers are more comfortable clinging to the declining models of the past.
I will have you know that in this clip I am performing on “expert” and have lost my guitar strap, as has Claire. There are lots of hilarious things I could tell you about the evening, but main thing you should know is that our prize for winning this Rock Band video competition was recording studio time. Seriously.