Sending Johnny Cash to Julliard?

Jeff Jarvis of Buzz Machine is asking for contributions to help bring Iraqi blogger Zeyad of Healing Iraq to the United States to study journalism at the new Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY (City University of New York). Jeff Jarvis is on the faculty and director of the new media program at the School of Journalism.

I’ll be sending a tax deductible (for us Yanks) check made out to:

Cuny Graduate School of Journalism
Dean Steve Shepard
CUNY Graduate School of Journalism
535 E. 80th St.
New York, NY 10021
Make sure to note that this is for the Zeyad Scholarship.

For the many of us who have been reading Zeyad all along, the idea takes a bit of getting used to. Zeyad has been one of the most reliable sources of information – good and bad – in Iraq from the early days of the war in 2003. In my mind two of his exclusives stand out. Well before the Abu Ghraib story broke he reported in January 2004 that his cousin had been arrested at Samarra and forced into the Tigris by American soldiers where he drowned. This June 2004 summary by Zeyad of the event and its consequences has links to the original material. (Scroll down – it is the second story dated “Saturday July 03, 2004 – there is no headline, only the date.)

His other exclusive came in December 2003 when he reported a 10,000 strong demonstration against the insurgency in Baghdad backed up with photographs. To his surprise he had a scoop even though the media were present. They just didn’t report it or deemphasized it so it wasn’t noticeable. His reports started a blogstorm of protest and few days later it got backpage coverage by the ‘newspaper of record’. Two posts from Dec. 10 and 12 tell the story here. (Again there are no permalinks to the exact post – you have to scroll about half way down the archive page to get to A great day for Iraq from Dec. 10, 2003 and More about the rallies on Dec. 12).

It was this passage from the latter article that changed forever my view of the media and I am someone who has taught about the media at university level. I knew it was bad, but I never thought it was this bad.

When we were marching on Dec.10 I told Omar that maybe we didn’t need to cover the protests after all since it looked like reporters from all the major media agencies were doing so. As you can see in my pictures there were scores of reporters and cameras all over the place. And since the rallies ended in front of the Palestine hotel we thought that it would be impossible for the media to ignore this event. I felt a bit awkward walking along reporters carrying just a little digital camera while they had all the equipment.

The last thing we expected was to be the first to publish anything about the protests. It felt both good and awful at the same time. Good for scooping Reuters, AFP, AP, and other wire services and media stations. And awful for the people that depended on these services for their news. I’m telling you there were reporters from every station in the world at the demos that day and yet only a few mentioned them at all.

Further on Zeyad asks the rhetorical question that in my opinion sums up the media’s failure in Iraq.

Imagine if half or even a quarter of that number were demonstrating against the war or against the occupation. What do you think would have happened? Would the media ignore it?

The cause of that failure is that for too many professional journalists and their editors the story exists before the facts. (There are honorable exceptions – John Burns of the New York Times comes to mind.) Zeyad just reports what happens in his country in an online journal called a blog. His reporting is contradictory, confusing, and frustrating because you can’t tell if the side you support is winning or losing or who, overall, are the good guys and who the bad. But it is real – not all of reality, but real. What the MSM mostly reports is a selection of facts that fit the preexisting story. Or plot. Or meme. That story is that the American invasion of Iraq is a failure. Sometimes this shows absolutely like when the BBC reported the US Army defeated during the initial invasion when they had to stop for the sandstorm on the way the Baghdad. I analyzed a more subtle example of meme mongering in After Tet, the Five O’clock Follies. Overwhelmingly what we get is a selection of facts that repeat this story of failure over and over until people simply believe it to be the truth of the situation in Iraq. When you read Zeyad, especially, you get a mix of inconvenient facts and unsettling observations. You don’t get to take away a sense of superior understanding or resolution because the truth is that the outcome is unknown and the population density of unresolved issues in Iraq is probably at world record levels.

In short Zeyad reminded us early on in Iraq what real journalism is as opposed to what much of professional journalism has become. One commenter summed up the ironic side of sending Zeyad to journalism school perfectly: – its like sending Johnny Cash to Julliard. (Julliard being America’s preeminent music school.) So why should we give money to send Zeyad to the new graduate school of Journalism at CUNY?

I’ll let Jeff Jarvis make the point in direct response to the commenter who raised the point:

I’ve said since I got to know him that Zeyad is a born journalist.
I also believe that he can have a critical role in helping build a new news media in Iraq and I hope that the opportunity to stand back and think and learn and act will be helpful for him.
Yes, there are skills that are useful to learn. But especially today as we all reinvent news and how its done its beneficial to examine the goals and the means.
I am a graduate of a j-school and I was quite disdainful of most of the experience.
So why the hell am I teaching in one? Because I think this is an important moment in media to work with young people who will not be afraid to reinvent news and news needs that. I think Zeyad brings a unique perspective to this and I look forward to working with him.

And I’d go further. This is a new school of journalism opening at a time when journalism is changing profoundly precisely because blogs have broken the monopoly of the established media and that of the professional schools that train the workers in that establishment. Like the one at my alma mater, Columbia, a couple of miles uptown form CUNY. I think Zeyad is better off at a new institution because he is part of the change and a new school of Journalism will be much more open to understanding the impact of blogging on journalism. They will have to wrestle with new phenomena such as what Eric Raymond calls the Bazaar like style of the Internet that I wrote about at length here. The point is that the open, bazaar like quality of the net allows any person with the ability to meet a particular need, regardless of formal qualifications, to emerge as a significant practitioner without further institutional support. That is just what Zeyad did walking down that Baghdad street with a free Blogger account an a cheap digital camera surrounded by hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of reporters and their gear. So while sending Zeyad to CUNY is about training Zeyad to be a better reporter, it is more importantly about working with Zeyad to develop the new journalism and to understand, codify, and institutionalize the amazing progress made by Zeyad and his fellow bloggers over the past few years. Without the latter institutional support the progress made and the needed reform of journalism could dissipate and fail to be effective -both in the US and in Iraq.

One final thought. Three years ago few, if any, had any idea of this potential of the blogsphere. This Yankeewombat notices with great pride that in his country of birth, in the city where he received his education, that the openmindedness and the institutional creativity exists to attempt to revitalize the institution of journalism.

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