Why Arianna Huffington is Bill Keller’s Somali Pirate

by zunguzungu

“In Somalia this would be called piracy.” -Bill Keller

“Africa, as an idea, a concept, has historically served, and continues to serve, as a polemical argument for the West’s desperate desire to assert its difference from the rest of the world.” -Achille Mbembe

Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis and Felix Salmon (and Felix Salmon) and all sorts of people have been following and commenting on the New York Times’ rhetorical war against Arianna Huffington and the Huffington Post. If you want a close look at it, you should read them. I want to take a far look.

To understand Bill Keller’s first op-ed, for example, a piece of screed called “All the Aggregation That’s Fit to Aggregate,” I think we need to look past the surface level confrontation between Keller — top dog at the New York Times — and Arianna Huffing ton (who he bizarrely tries to portray as some kind of Somali pirate). Sure, there’s something of the “new media” vs. “legacy media” culture clash going on here; Keller is standing tall for the oldest of American journalistic old guards, while the Huffington Post is a manifestation of what the media landscape looks like after the internet. I guess. But while Huffington’s response to Keller got at some of what is most silly and self-serving about his silly and self-serving little diatribe (“patting himself on the back so hard I’d be surprised if he didn’t crack a rib,” as she puts it, is certainly apt), it’s worth noting how quickly she gets just as silly and self-serving as he does, quite literally repeating his own lines back at him. And this is the most important point about what is going on here: especially in the context of this particular argument — which hinges on the “theft” of words and the “convergence” between new and old media — Huffington reiterates and repeats, point by point, precisely the same rhetoric which Keller first aimed at her. This the forest we should not miss for the trees.

After all, this isn’t an argument about anything. What they are most concretely at odds about in that exchange — the little piece of intellectual property which Keller claims Huffington stole from him, and which she then claims he stole from her — is a painfully banal cliché, the notion that old media and new media are “converging.” I don’t care who said it first, and neither should you, because at this point, this is not an idea that can be stolen, any more than one could steal the idea that politicians are corrupt, the American people are getting a raw deal, farmers are suffering, and we need to get back to basics if America is going to be great again. You cannot patent a cliché. Which is why that non-argument demonstrates what’s most interesting — and illustrative — about this exchange: since they are saying the same thing, what they are fighting about is who is going to be privileged with the right to say it.

To put this another way, what is interesting here is that both Keller and Huffington want to say the same thing: they agree on the fact that Real Journalists can and should do Real Journalism, and so they try to portray the other as a mere thief of words, an unimportant parasite. A consensus thereby emerges on the difference between Real Journalism and aggregation-piracy; while they disagree on who the Real Journalist is, they’ve implicitly agreed on how they will disagree, what the distinction over which they‘re jousting actually is. Aggregators are pirates, while Real Journalists do Real Journalism. And what are Real Journalists? People who aren’t pirate aggregators.

The real problem, however, is that journalists are, by their nature, thieves of words. You can call it what you like; you can say “Possibly I am old-fashioned,” and talk about how “actual journalists are laboring at actual history, covering the fever of democracy in Arab capitals and the fever of austerity in American capitals” (Keller) or you can brag about the “148 full-time editors, writers, and reporters engaged in the serious, old-fashioned work of traditional journalism” (Huffington), but all this “old fashioned” stuff is just a way of covering over something really basic about what “actual” journalists “traditionally” do, all the time: write down what other people say. They can exercise editorial discretion in how they integrate and harmonize the various quotes they‘ve aggregated. They can confirm, they can contextualize, and they can (very rarely) manage to witness something with their own two eyes. They can produce collages out of stolen scraps. And they should do these things. But at the core of the journalistic process is the act, inescapably, of taking other people’s texts, weaving them together, and then placing them under your byline (with appropriate citation) and profiting from the activity.

The more you talk about piracy, it seems to me, the more you bump into the uncomfortable fact that journalism is only distinguishable from word-piracy because, and to the extent that, we arbitrarily decide that it is. We have social conventions that determine what is and isn’t okay to say and steal, and how to do so — institutional rules defining the difference between socially useful activities and socially un-useful activities — but while those conventions are under particular stress right now (file this under “the internet”) they were also never quite as stable as we might have liked to think they were. This is not to say that they aren’t necessary, useful, and worth retaining, of course. They just aren’t written in stone, nor were they received from on high; they are a contingent function of what it is that we expect “the press” to do as part of the social function they fulfill. Which is why, ultimately, the kind of society that we believe “good journalism” will serve will be the determinant of what standards we use in defining what is good in journalism.

That line of thinking, however, would take the conversation in a different direction than either Keller or Huffington want it to go. This is because they are not, a such, interested in the social function of “the press” — for which, see Jay Rosen’s manifesto — but rather, in the business of profiting from their activities. This should not surprise us,  but neither should it escape our notice: their job is to make information commodities, to secure ownership of them, and then find some way to sell them. “Real Journalism” talk, in that context, is just market fetishizing, a way of mystifying the work of social production that makes “news” possible, so that it can appear to be the original creation of whoever is selling it to you. Never mind all the different people whose unpaid contributions made the production of the story possible (the original tipoff, unquoted sources, quoted subjects, the reference works consulted, etc); they will not be paid or credited for intellectual labor, because of the magic thing that happens when the story has been published: having become news, it will subsequently be considered the sole production of the New York Times or whoever. And if Arianna Huffington steals it, now, she becomes indistinguishable from a Somali pirate. Once we have decided where ownership of information begins — whose intellectual labor counts and whose does not — then we can proceed to sell it.

In a really interesting paper on the practice of news aggregation (complete with field work, because real writers do it in the field), C.W. Anderson had recourse to Bruno Latour’s idea of the “black box” to describe what it is that news-people do:

Boeing engineers labor to create a new model of jet, which will never reach the market  if its various parts break down during test flights. In forming a friendship, settling a marriage, or composing a manuscript, our hope is to establish something durable that does not constantly fray or break down. A job in which our roles are reassigned each week, or with the constant danger of being sacked by an emotionally unstable superior, is more of a headache  than anyone can endure. Earning a doctoral degree would not be worth the trouble if our transcript and thesis were scrutinized monthly by a panel of experts for the rest of our lives, or if long-time professors had to retake their comprehensive exams every summer. In everyday language we now refer to certain cars and people with the wonderful phrase ‘high-maintenance’. By definition, a black box is low-maintenance. It is something we rely on as a given in order to take further steps, never worrying about how it came into being. The reason it can be either so refreshing or so annoying to speak of one’s work with outside amateurs is that they lack awareness of the black boxes widely recognized in our respective professions (Harman 2009, 37).

and Anderson comments that

“the utility of Latour’s argument is that it gestures at the fairly commonsense notion that all stable definitions of originality and aggregation disguise their incredibly complex histories. They also bracket off the tangled, halting practices of actual journalistic work. The differences between an “aggregator” and an “original reporter” are never as clear in actual practice as they are during testimony in front of a public commission…Once we shift our analytical lens from the domain of rhetoric to the domain of practice, the complexity of the distinction between aggregation and original reporting becomes even more tangled…seemingly-solid occupational boundary lines are actually comprised of a myriad of complex, uncertain, unstable practices”

Exactly so: when posturing in front of the FCC (or in front of customers), journalists will need to make Real Journalism seem as clear and unambiguous as possible, so that they can lay secure claim to being it. Since everyone has agreed to agree that Real Journalism is important to democracy, the people who try to sell their Real Journalism will receive the social sanction for doing so only to the extent that they can clarify and lay claim to their status as such. A natural profit motive therefore flows out of this identity: it is by claiming “originality” that Keller gets to call Huffington a pirate (and justify the Times paywall), and it is by demonstrating his feet of clay that Huffington gets to defend her product from that accusation. Whoever wins the Real Journalism battle royal gets to defend American democracy from the barbarians.

Which is where the Somali pirates enter the picture: since journalistic products do not have value without their claim to a stable originality that will never really obtain in practice, people like Keller and Huffington will find it necessary to lay claim to being Real Journalists by conjuring up the figure of the Not Real Journalist, the aggregator they gain status by demonizing and othering. And since Keller, in particular, is trying to lay claim to capitalist champion of the democratic republic, what better figure for him to be different from — what more perfectly illegitimate aggregator of other people’s hard earned capital — than the metaphor made real in Somalia? What better argument for the importance of a newsgathering corporation’s profit motive to the sustenance of Our Republic than the figure of the failed-state collapse of institutional democracy — with the more specific  specter of Black Hawk Down somewhere in the background —  nicely bundled up in the figure of the actual pirate?

UPDATE: So far, as of noon wednesday, 125 people have clicked the links above for the New York Times or Huffington Post. Those page-views are hardly going to keep the good ship journalism afloat, mind you, but they are a very clear and concrete example of the “parasitic” way that bloggers steal from “real” journalism by, um, directing traffic back at the MSM itself.

Arianna, Bill, you’re welcome!