Q&A with Prof. Sam Freedman

The toughest, most demanding and most ultimately rewarding professor I ever had, Sam Freedman, has just come out with his latest book, Letters to a Young Journalist. Poynter (a clearinghouse of journalism industry happenings) has a great interview with him:

You’re tough on bloggers, FOX News and citizen journalists. As a former New Yorke Times reporter and tenured professor at Columbia Journalism School, what separates you from charges that you’re an elitist scold?

I don’t mind being called an elitist if being an elitist means being the best, not being snooty and effete. When I hear people complain about the elite, I always ask them if they’d like to apply their principle to sports. Let’s have an NFL season with only mediocre players, because all those elitists like Tom Brady and Donovan McNabb are ruining the game. Somehow people don’t mind the elite all of a sudden. I don’t think an amateur is as qualified as a professional in journalism. There are qualified journalists and scholars whose blogs I do read — Juan Cole on the Middle East, Andrew Sullivan on social and political issues, Gregg Easterbrook on football. But in their cases, the blog is simply an alternative delivery system. These people write out of a body of research, if not for every posting, then certainly over the course of a career. But to just sit down and write your opinions or harvest the day’s gossip — that’s not journalism, even if it is momentarily chic. As for FOX, it’s a fascinating political movement, but it’s not a news organization in any way I recognize. If that’s scolding, then I’m guilty as charged.

But I want to be more than a chastising prophet. I think that the best bloggers and podcasters and webzines of the future can be enriched by an appreciation of the commitment to reporting, unbiased inquiry and lucid expression that the evil MSM can practice at its best. The “old” can inform and enhance the “new.” Just the other day, I was listening to Terry Gross interview the jazz drummer Paul Motian on “Fresh Air.” Now, I associate Motian with modal and free jazz, modern forms, but he was talking about how much he’d been influenced by supposed old-timers like Chick Webb. In journalism, as in jazz, there is a tradition, and that tradition has something to teach modernists, too.