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Crisis of authority

It is apparently not enough for proprietors of newspapers and magazines and publishing houses to jettison their editors to cut expenses. No, in addition, we are subjected to scorn: We have obsolete “gatekeeper” roles in the new realm of information that wants to be free; our editing procedures are quaint echoes of 19th-century industrial processes. Every time an editor is let go, Jeff Jarvis* sheds another crocodile tear.

The very idea of authority is being challenged, and what the Testy Copy Editors have been calling “the war on editing” is merely one battle.

Wikipedia’s defenders insist that it doesn’t really matter that the online collaborative encyclopedia contains an unknown quantity of suspect information, some of it merely mistaken or outdated, but some of it outright fraudulent. Doesn’t matter that it may not be right. Wikipedia is swell.

Those publishing proprietors mentioned above think it doesn’t matter all that much if the accuracy of their publications has suffered and the quality has been compromised. Readers will put up with anything.

Bloggers and Internet sites post rumors, unconfirmed or unattributed statements of fact, and outright lies — we saw during the campaign that any kind of vicious nonsense about Sarah Palin or Barack Obama, provably false statements and fantasies, multiplied like the hydra, growing new appendages as fast as the old ones could be lopped off. Doesn’t matter. You can say anything. It’s all OK.

We saw a crisis of authority in the 1960s and 1970s, when the civil rights movement and the feminist movement, combined with widespread disenchantment over the conduct of the Vietnam War and the exposure of the governmental falsehoods connected with it, led to skeptical rejection of the authority of the white male Establishment in business, government, academia and the church. We’ve been down this road before.

But there was an earlier and more profound crisis of authority that should resonate today: the challenge to church and state and established order associated with the rise of printing technology in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Once the monopoly on information held by church and state was broken, anyone could say anything. And say it anonymously or pseudonymously. It was a free-for-all like the Internet: political subversion, religious controversy, all conducted with vicious personal attacks on one’s opponents. No copyright — anyone could steal anything. Anyone could invent anything.

It took a long time for print publication to become even partially domesticated. No doubt the Internet will also undergo some domestication over time, but it is difficult to be optimistic about that.

For now, to shift metaphor, we are living in the Wild West. There are gunslingers walking the streets at will, and the honest citizens can’t tell when they might find themselves in a crossfire. No doubt it’s exciting to be a gunslinger, an exuberant freedom, but the ordinary citizenry is eventually going to want a little more order.

This is where the metaphor starts to trouble me, because I don’t want the state to be laying a heavy hand on the Internet. I don’t have a badge and don’t want one. But I don’t see that self-policing is effective. And the I-don’t-care-whether-it’s-right-or-not attitude seems in particular to be a substantial obstacle to establishment of authority to which the public can give willing assent.



* Look him up yourself. I’m disinclined to send traffic his way.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:03 AM | | Comments (10)


It's not just the Internet, John.

There are tabloid newspapers, magazines, radio shows and televison shows that deliver drivel too.

We can only hope that people will learn to cast the same discerning eye on the Internet that they do on other forms of "content delivery".


In the two threads on Wikipedia, I don't remember anyone arguing that it " Doesn’t matter that it may not be right. Wikipedia is swell." My argument, and, I think, that of the others who defended Wikipedia, was that Wikipedia, though flawed and not something that should be relied on, served useful purposes. You seem to be attacking a position that no one has taken. If I knew of a way to get Wikipedia's comprehensiveness, ease of use, and timeliness without all the errors, I'd join your campaign. But I don't, and you don't either. Our only choices seem to be Wikipedia as is or no Wikipedia at all. If that's right, the world may be a better place with it than without it. And even if that's wrong--even if Wikipedia does more harm than good--suppressing it would require a sort of censorship that would, in the end, destroy freedom of speech.

The decline of editing is another matter. I am sometimes appalled by the grammar and spelling errors I often see these days in edited prose:not just newspapers (some of which don't seem to care about anything except not "splitting" verbs), but in books (including at least one by a Pulitzer Prize winner, which misspelled "principal" throughout and formed possessives of words ending in s by putting an apostrophe before the s),

"There are mistakes due to factual errors, poor English or outright malice. And, despite what some would say, all of the errors don't get immediately caught and fixed appropriately. Indeed, some require a huge effort to resolve.

"But the overall premise has been proven. The vast quantity of materials and the comparatively low error rate speak for themselves."


"If you use Wikipedia regularly, you know what it is useful for and what its limitations are (and if you don't, what's the problem, really?"


"Isn't the fact that some people find it useful enough? Wikipedia doesn't displace anything else, so people who need more-accurate sources remain free to use them, while movie buffs (and others) can use Wikipedia in ways that benefit them. Other things are more accurate, but typically less comprehensive and less up-to-date."


"It's more a case of arguing that the errors are the price you have to pay to get the benefits."


" I don't think anyone has said Wikipedia is error-free or that "the errors don't matter" - I certainly haven't, the nearest thing to it I have said is "I don't expect 100% accuracy from any source." And I'm really not interested in denying Wikipedia's faults. Instead, I maintain that its faults are outweighed by its virtues: it is quick and easy to use, comprehensive, cheap, often entertaining and available in different languages."

These are all comments from the Wikipediaphilia post. I leave it to readers of the blog to decide whether the Wikipedia enthusiasts are or are not saying that it doesn't bnother them much that particulatr entries may be riddled with errors and fabrications.

I'll save you the trouble of Googling: My blog is at

Mr. Jarvis and Mr. Gunn both believe themselves to be of a lot more interest than they are.

I love the parallel you found w/ the rise of the printing press.

(In college, i did a short paper on the criticisms directed at TV--that is encourages violence or lack of respect for authority, has lots of mediocrity, is a bad influence on children--and found parallels in the rise of radio, of the comic book, of the penny magazine, of the printing press itself)

Actually, the need for editors to always prove the value of their existence is part of what frustrated me over the whole Dan Rather/falsified letter issue.

true, editors aren't licensed, are paid by prviate companies etc. And so yes, there is not state control over quality. (then again, the licensed city elevator inspectors in my city are so lousy that we're all going to be required to fund an entirely new industry--independent elevator engineers to oversee the city inspectors).

But even that control is better than none.

Actually, I wonder if the rise of Fox News, and the gentler rise of a liberal bias in other news outlets, and the rise of the incredibly sensationalistic news decisions made over the past 10 years, have basically conditioned people to think of all editors as phenomenally self-serving.

Putting Britney Spears on the cover over and over again has hurt us. (Us=editors who want to have jobs)

I think Mr. McIntyre is debunking the claim that editors are getting in the way of information and that they should be a thing of the past.

One of the strongest contributions the newspaper industry has made to society is in developing a procedure for finding, organizing and distributing reliable information, very very quickly.

That all news organizations are flawed, and some news organizations revel in their particular flaws, is no more an indictment of newspapering than a quack doctor is an indictment of the medical profession.

This is not the same as claiming that everything in a newspaper is THE TRVTH. What it means is that newspapers are produced with specific sourcing rules and hence we know to what degree we can probably trust a newspaper story (depending on the newspaper, of course).

Does that mean we can't use any other sources for information? No. It just means that different sources must be treated differently.

Wikipedia is not only unreliable in its material, it is unreliable temporally as well. Its errors change while we speak. There is no such thing as an errata sheet for Wikipedia. No experts are required to review articles before they appear. This makes it unsuitable for anyone to use it as a serious primary resource, but it makes it a good place to go if you're curious about a subject and want to know if you want to know more about it.

Blogs add dimension and personal reflection to stories. They can draw lines and detect patterns not obvious to the daily reader. But they are by nature subjective, sometimes laughably so. And they tend to be dependent on the very sources of information they mock. If I had a dollar for every link to a story on a newspaper website that is claimed to be "suppressed by the MSM," well, I'd be able to buy everyone here a beer. Or martini.

Let's see if I am following you, here, Mr McIntyre. The craft, prestige and necessity of the figure of editor are under attack, and not just that, but "the very idea of authority is being challenged." And the fault lies with people like myself, Mr Jarvis, and Wikipedia (again). Well, stap me. It's so many years since I was last considered subversive, I almost regret having to disagree.

For one thing, Wikipedia does have editors, whether they are doing a good job or not. To the extent that others have pointed out that it can be annoyingly difficult to make corrections to a Wikipedia entry, because the changes get edited out.

More essentially, if the editor is less important than in the past, it is not because of an onset of anarchy or an excess of democracy but because business models have changed. Book publishers, for example, do not spend as much money as they used to on editing or even proper proofreading, because they can't afford to. There are fewer people involved in the production process, each with more responsibility. It is happening in practically every industry and, in the media, so much so that many prefer to set up entirely on their own, as bloggers or whatever. They are not, generally, gunslingers (gunslingers work for hire, after all). Some may be irresponsible or dishonest, but their existence is not due to a crisis of authority (and neither is it because anyone thinks any the less of the editor's skills).

Incidentally, as far as the free-for-all, Wild-West, end-of-civilization-as-we-know-it state of the Internet today goes, this does not square with my experience. For example, when I complained and demonstrated to Wikipedia that large chunks of an article of mine had been reproduced there without my permission, this was rectified within a few days. Print media rarely show the same respect.

I subscribe to the analysis of Mr. Gunn with respect to Wikipedia offered above. (I suspect that Mr. McIntyre might contend that this makes me a gunnslinger, but so be it.) More significantly, however,I think that Mr. McIntyre's criticism of Wikipedia and, now, his criticism of blogs is rooted in a more fundamental lack of appreciation of the Internet.

It is true that there's a vast amount of garbage out there. But wading through the garbage to find the good stuff is comparatively easy. By way of example, one can easily find great commentary on economics from top people in the field. The depth of their various analyses and the debates and discussions on economic issues, taken as a whole, provide a far richer source for understanding the current economic crisis than newspapers ever offered with respect to such crises in the past.

Yes, it is true that frauds and deliberate disinformation spread faster and more widely than ever before, but the correctives also can be disseminated more rapidly. While in 2004, the Kerry campaign failed to recognize the danger of the Swiftboaters and did not react in a timely way, that situation should never be repeated, because we now know how to respond. Thus, the Obama campaign quickly responded to the false rumor that he was not qualified to be president because he was not born in this country with certified copies of his birth record and pictures of his birth announcements in both Honolulu newspapers from 1961.

It never ceases to astonish me how quickly norms and practices of etiquette have developed with respect to blogs, Wikis, listserves, and all other aspects of information dissemination available on the Internet. I don't want to suggest that these norms and practices are perfect or even sufficient. But, as my mother used to say when she bought me clothes that were a size or so too large, "You'll grow into it." Don't despair Mr. McIntyre, the Internet will grow into it.

The Abbeville Manual of Style's post on editing gives an additional, and more optimistic, perspective:

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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