Wednesday, January 26, 2011

'Stewart, Assange and Journalism Education' case study

I wrote this for my senior seminar What is a Text class and since I've been on my WikiLeaks kick, I figured I'd post it here as well. Enjoy!

Katherine Concepcion

Jan 25th Case Study Presentation: “Stewart, Assange and Journalism Education”


Author and director of the Journalism School at Iowa State University, Michael Bugeja, must have titled his article, “Stewart, Assange and Journalism Education” because it mentions those topics in that order, but for no other reason. The bulk of his article contains caterwauling about the demise of journalism education and how the Internet is to blame. Curiously enough, for all his laments about the Internet, I have to think that the naming of the article was strategic - Stewart and Assange are all over the media, so mentioning them, albeit in passing, would undoubtedly lead to more clicks on Google than if he had just complained about America’s education system.
The bulk of my analysis has to do with the contradictions he makes, particularly when discussing Julian Assange, founder of WikiLeaks. On this topic, my thesis can be summed up almost in its entirety by the following quote, courtesy of Upton Sinclair: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”
In the interest of clarity and comparison, I will quote Bugeja’s words (with added italics) first, and then follow with my critique and analysis, in bold.

“Satirist Jon Stewart and activist Julian Assange are symbols of a world without journalism — a largely online marketing-based, consumer-driven world at odds with principles of democracy and freedom.”
Right away he implies that Stewart and Assange are not journalists, and that, really, journalism, presumably the kind that he teaches or was accustomed with was completely outside consumer mandate, which of course rejects the fact that newspapers have to sell ad space to make money.

“Stewart is often considered a journalist because he holds people accountable when many metro media outlets no longer do so in their downsized newsrooms.”
So, the ability for journalists to hold people accountable is predicated on the size of their work spaces, staff and amount of funding? What about people who blog and do independent research on important topics for no money at all and what about the whistle blowers like Assange, who not only do it for no money, but also risk being jailed?

“"The Daily Show" does this often by following up on what newsmakers did or said in the past and then comparing that to current, contradictory actions and statements. WikiLeaks purportedly holds people and governments accountable. It does so, however, by “WebThink.” Whereas responsible journalists scrutinize motives of tipsters and fact-check authenticity of cables, WebThink just dumps it all on the Internet and lets computer chips fly where they may.”
The obviously implication here is that WikiLeaks, and, by extension, Assange, is not responsible. But journalists couldn’t fact check the authenticity of cables if the cables did not exist. WikiLeaks provides the cables, at least some of them. Assange, in an interview, likened the publication of semi-raw data to making scientific experiment results available for checking against the published accounts in scientific journals. The raw data is there to be able to check the authenticity of the claims made in the news stories.
Journalists dump their biases on the Internet too; you’ve got columnists who will always put their own spin on something. Stories can come from all different angles, and besides, is it not the point of journalism to give people the facts, not encourage them to align themselves with the ideology of the author? The facts are what count. That’s what cables do, that’s what WikiLeaks does.

By elevating access over truth, ours has become a world that reacts via commentary rather than prevents in advance of calamity.”

Journalism IS commentary.

“What has society lost by allowing Internet behemoths like Google to alter the funding mechanisms for news? Educators should analyze that question because each discipline is affected, in as much as rhetoric now masquerades as fact.”

Rhetoric masquerades as fact: whenever you explain something, you filter it through your own biases. WikiLeaks provides no rhetoric, it provides raw data, raw facts. Shouldn’t he support this?

“Social networks and search engines give away that news for free in return for personal information and then vend those data to companies whose cookies are as hidden as terms of service.”

This is a different issue altogether the issue of privacy and the issue of journalism is different. Privacy is a major concern, but this is a red herring. The main complaint the author has is that journalism is moving away from what he thinks it should be.

“As evidence Doak cites WikiLeaks’ cables, calling them "a meaningless mass of information until the Guardian and The New York Times made sense of them, using traditional journalism techniques." “

It’s only a meaningless mass of information because it doesn’t have commentary attached, but Assange and WikiLeaks volunteers go through lots of trouble to decode these things, especially the complex military acronyms, and they protect their sources.

“WikiLeaks, he adds, proves we need traditional journalism more than ever "to decipher and interpret the information overload."”

WikiLeaks can stand alone because individuals can generate their own opinions, not just the ones espoused on the front pages of newspapers with corporate interests.


The binary oppositions used throughout the article include old vs. new media, opinion vs. truth, good vs. bad journalism, and journalism vs. data dissemination.

The author made arguments which he felt applied to a defense of what he sees as traditional journalism, but could actually be applied to WikiLeaks, which he is against. The text is interesting because of the numerous internal contradictions and vague pronouncements. It also taps into an important current event and an issue that will be a thorn in the side of reactionary academics for a long time.


  1. Katherine,

    You provide an excellent critique of Michael Bugeja's latest rant against new media technology developments.

    As he does in this article, Bugeja's pattern in his anti-technology rants is to focus on the worse possible outcome and then write about it as if it is highly likely to happen. In doing so, he creates considerable publicity for himself.

    What this particular opinion piece is missing is faith in the intelligence of the current and future generations of journalists to intelligently use new media technology to enhance their craft.

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