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.