The Queen of Curmudgeons

Meet Connie Schultz. If you care about politics more than about journalism, which would make you like most people, then you might know that she is Mrs. Sherrod Brown, the wife of a Democratic U.S. senator from Ohio. But those of us in the newspaper world know her as a columnist for the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, and a damn good one, winner of numerous journalism awards including the Pulitzer Prize.

Lately, though, Connie Schultz has become something else...the Queen of the Curmudgeons. It's a little inside baseball, but the curmudgeons are the people in the newspaper world who are still telling the kids, the bloggers and the hyperactive commenters and the citizen journalists, to get off our lawn that we've manicured for all these decades, even while the big house fell into such disrepair.

It was Schultz, you may remember, who launched a push for new copyright laws aimed at stopping others from posting links to online newspaper articles, a move that would probably hurt conventional journalism -- as we look to establish ourselves online -- in the long run. Now she's back with a column that ties itself in such knots that I think it inadvertently captures everything that's gone wrong with journalism over the last generation or two. She starts out by trashing people who anonymously post comments on newspaper articles or other kinds of journalism. So if you're a regular reader of this blog, she's probably trashing you!

Certainly, we are concerned about job stability. But veteran journalists are equally troubled by the online threat to standards we hold dear.

If anyone had told me five years ago that newspapers would allow anonymous comments and that we would have to respond to them, I would have invited them to come for a walk with me to the land of grown-ups. Now, I regularly address authors of online comments by their made-up names and pretend this doesn't feel like junior high school all over again.

The so-called citizen journalism of most blogs is an affront to those of us who believe reporting and attribution must precede publication.

Whoa! For one thing, what makes Schultz think that all mainstream news stories have attribution? From inside-the-Beltway blather to local cop stories, anonymous sources rule these days. (Case in point, this week's Time cover story on Bush, Cheney, and the non-pardon of Scooter Libby -- a good read, but finding a named source here is like the proverbial needle in the haystack). So I don't think that's something that newspaper folks have over other online writers.

More important, though, is the attitude dripping through Schultz's curmudgeonly rant. Sure, journalists get paid to do original reporting that citizen journalists don't have the time or money to do themselves, and that's good. But if we merely use that information to look down our noses at people rather than start a community conversation, then we all deserve to go out of business. Commenters with pseudonyms can be a pain, and I know that better than most. But they remain a much more valuable source of feedback -- both the "keeping us honest" kind and the helpful tip kind -- than anything we got during the "Go write a letter to the editor" era.

Here's where Schultz's new column takes a bizarre turn, though. She goes onto to talk about how the rise of upper-middle-class college educated journalists in the 1980s and 1990s meant that journalists now had little in the way of ties to "the underdog," the afflicted that reporters believe -- or tell themselves, anyway -- that they have a mission to comfort. She then adds:

The economic turmoil of the last two years has changed much about America, including the rank and file of newsrooms. There is not a newspaper in the country left unscathed. Journalists lucky enough to still have jobs are now full of their own stories about slashed wages, lost colleagues and abandoned desks.

Shared experiences nurture empathy, and that's a handy skill when you're capturing in words, pictures and video the essence of another human being. Our privileged, arm's length status from the people we cover has evaporated, and the view from common ground is fueling some of the most poignant journalism in years.

Huh? So if I understand what Connie Schultz is saying here, the recession, particularly in newsrooms, has at least been good in the sense that now journalists can understand how regular people are feeling -- without the messiness of what would be the easiest way to know how people are feeling, which would be to actually interact with them on a regular basis, including online. That only seems to make Schultz uncomfortable.

To go even farther, the whole idea of journalism to supposed to be that reporters are constantly out in the community, taking its pulse, to understand its stories and to then relate them to others -- regardless of whether it's something you've experienced personally. (Obvious case in point: a lot of great journalism in the 1960s about civil rights was written by whites as well as blacks.) Yet Schultz is saying the exact opposite, that we can only write well about the economically challenged with the layoff dagger poised over our own backs. That's just wrong.

The truth is that the world that Schultz imagines -- people with keyboards in ivory towers explaining the what it all means to "the little people" scurrying below-- is dying for the obvious reason, which is that it deserves to die. In its place is rising a chaotic mess, but one where all kinds of people are at least talking to each other, in real time, and I think we will ultimately be better off with the journalism that results from these unholy new alliances. And as talented as Connie Schultz is, I figure that one of these days she's going to hop on this fast-moving bus with the rest of us. But until then, she'll remain what she is today: The Queen of the Curmudgeons.