Jarvis criticizes NYT’s Cohen for his dismissal of Twitter

Jeff Jarvis has a post worth read­ing over at BuzzMachine. In it, he com­pares columns about Twitter from two very dif­fer­ent jour­nal­ists: Mike DeArmond, a sports writer from Kansas City, and Roger Cohen, from the New York Times.

I’ll leave DeArmond aside, since he was clearly going for humor in his col­umn. Cohen takes a more intel­lec­tual approach in his col­umn, which appeared in the Times on Sept. 9.

Jarvis, in par­tic­u­lar, deals with these three para­graphs by Cohen:

Twitter’s pitch is “Share and dis­cover what’s hap­pen­ing right now, any­where in the world.” That’s what it does — up to a point. It’s many things, includ­ing a for­mi­da­ble alert­ing sys­tem for a break­ing story; a means of orga­ni­za­tion; a mon­i­tor of global inter­est lev­els (Iran trended high­est for weeks until Michael Jackson’s death) and of media per­for­mance; a bank of essen­tial links; a rich archive; and a com­mu­nity (“Twitter is my best friend.”)

But is it jour­nal­ism? No. In fact jour­nal­ism in many ways is the antithe­sis of the “Here Comes Everybody” — Clay Shirky’s good phrase — del­uge of raw mate­r­ial that new social media deliver. For jour­nal­ism is dis­til­la­tion. It is a choice of mate­r­ial, whether in words or image, made in pur­suit of pre­sent­ing the truest and fairest, most vivid and com­plete rep­re­sen­ta­tion of a situation.

It comes into being only through an orga­niz­ing intel­li­gence, an orga­niz­ing sen­si­bil­ity. It depends on form, an unfash­ion­able lit­tle word, with­out which sig­nif­i­cance is lost to chaos. As Aristotle sug­gested more than two mil­len­nia ago, form requires a begin­ning and mid­dle and end. It demands unity of theme. Journalism cuts through the atwit­ter state to the­matic coherence.

According to Jarvis, Cohen is con­fronted by new tools and unsure of where they fit into his job as a jour­nal­ist. As a result, Cohen finds rea­son to reject Twitter, to dimin­ish it.


In these screeds, we also get a glimpse of these Journalists’ def­i­n­i­tions of jour­nal­ism. I say that news was made into a prod­uct by the neces­si­ties and lim­i­ta­tions of its means of pro­duc­tion and dis­tri­b­u­tion in print and broad­cast. News is prop­erly a process, I believe. Cohen says, no, it must have a begin­ning, mid­dle, and end, a nar­ra­tive he sets, an order he gives, a chaos he rejects. He says else­where in his col­umn that pres­ence is nec­es­sary to do jour­nal­ism; he thus says that it takes a reporter to report, that news with­out the jour­nal­ist him or her­self bear­ing wit­ness to it is not real news. He puts The Journalist at the cen­ter of news. I say the jour­nal­ist is the ser­vant of news. I tell my stu­dents to add jour­nal­is­tic value to what is already being spread – report­ing, fact-checking, per­spec­tive, answers – but rec­og­nize that the news is there with or with­out them. It is gath­ered and spread by the peo­ple who see it and need it with new tools, like Twitter. Like it or not.

Jarvis is right. Journalism is a process, and Cohen is con­fus­ing that process with one of the tools that can be used to do it. (Or, as one com­menter asked, “The tele­phone: Is it journalism?”)

But let’s not dis­miss Cohen as a pure elit­ist. While I dis­agree with his com­ments about form (and his allu­sion to Aristotle), I do think that he per­haps inad­ver­tently raises the idea of jour­nal­ists as curators.

With so much infor­ma­tion fly­ing at us every day, jour­nal­ists will demon­strate their value to soci­ety by fil­ter­ing that raw data and re-presenting it for pub­lic con­sump­tion. Cohen seems to have that belief buried some­where inside him. Unfortunately, it’s shrouded in some pretty pride­ful remarks.