Sunday, January 03, 2010

Citizen Journalism and Blogging

This morning I received yet another of the year end predictions for the coming year, this from featured a post by Noah Jennings that proclaims It's up to Citizen Journalists to Uncover the Face of Homelessness in 2010. It made me feel it necessary to comment on the explosion of what passes for journalism in this age of new media, whether at Huffington Post or the blogs by which every so-called old media tries to maintain it's importance.

It is very ironic to see Dorothea Lange's iconic Migrant Mother used as the image of citizen journalists. Lange was far from that, working for the Farm Security Administration of the US Dept. of Agriculture, along with other photographers: Walker Evans, Russel Lee, Carl Mydans, Ben Shahn, Arthur Rothstein and under the direction of Roy Stryker. That group of documentary photographers left an archive of over 160,000 negatives for the Library of Congress.

It was the availability of Federal funding that made this all work. Lange was so often on field trips that she would even return and then pay Ansel Adams to develop her film as she took off again.

As for the Migrant Mother, both she and Lange died of cancer and the two girls in that photograph long believed that Lange had gotten rich off of their plight. She didn't, as she was paid a flat fee per image and the government held the copyright.

A good new biography of Lange was recently published and would have been easily available had Noah Jennings bothered to fact check his own story rather than just accepting the myth that fit his preconception.
During the Great Depression, the photographer responsible for the powerful picture above, Dorothy Lange, completed an extraordinary body of work devoted entirely to share croppers suffering from lost farms. She gave her pictures to any paper that would take them because it was that important to her that people saw what was happening. That's some role model, right?
We can all agree with Jennings that it is a good role model. But his Lange is a mythal figure. Not only was her FSA work in the public domain, but Lange's photography covered a wider range of subject matter than indicated. Her very urban White Angel Bread Line is equally iconic of the Great Depression.

Here is the plight of the citizen journalist. It does not pay. It may lead to other things, just as every photographer mentioned above went on to greater fame, if not fortune. So, what we too often get is a flood of poorly written, invective laden prose supported by a series of links to whatever one finds on the internet that the writer believe someone else had researched. True investigative journalism is rare, and where it does exists, has very few readers.

It is so much easier to voice ones opinion than to research, document and report original material. The archetype of good, knowledgeable, investigative journalism on the internet is the Atlantic Yards Report, where Norman Oder has been a major pain in the ass to developer Bruce Ratner, Brooklyn Borough President Martie Markowitz and particularly to the NY Times whose every story on this issue is subjected to Oder's scrutiny and evaluated by his obviously higher standards of journalism. The are very, very few Norman Oder's around.

Jennings has a valid point. Homelessness is not adequately covered in print. It is seasonally covered by television with stories on food bank needs and Christmas turkeys. But the reality rarely seeps through and never in the manner that Lange caught the fact of poverty in her stark black-and-white images. Such a message did not need the creation of a mythical Lange.

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