At one point yesterday, Reuters’s Jack Shafer sent out a series of tweets noting that a large number of media critics—basically all of the well known ones in the US—had no complaints about Romenesko’s work when it came to attribution and linking. I was included on that list because I tweeted that Romenesko “has linked to me many times over the past seven years, and I never had an issue w/ attribution.” That’s been my personal experience. (Read all six Shafer tweets: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6.)
So are all these media beat writers right, or are we gravitating towards the same point of view for other reasons? Dan Sinker called the whole thing “inside-baseball bullshittery”, and he’s right in the sense that this is so inside that it’s worth examining whether media people can be fair about it.
Look at all of the necessary disclosures at the top of this column, and it’s valid to wonder if I’m able to think about this clearly. Aside from my own situation, I can’t remember a time when I saw such a large group of grizzled media writers and critics line up on the same side.
The personal aspect is relevant here. As of now it seems that no press or media writer had an experience with Romenesko that led them to think he’d unfairly used their words. That’s important.
Personally, it was a strange experience to realize how I instantly didn’t assume any conscious wrongdoing on the part of Romenesko. This is not how I usually react to a situation like this. Usually, when a publication speaks of a failure of attribution, I’m pretty skeptical, if not downright incredulous.
I spoke to a journalism class in Chicago via Skype a few weeks back, and a student asked me about whether I thought people claiming to have committed accidental plagiarism were sincere. I said something to the effect that about 90 or 95 percent of claims of failure of attribution or accidental plagiarism are probably bullshit.
But yesterday? I almost without hesitation placed Romenesko in the 5 percent as soon as I read the story by Moos. I didn’t for a second think he had deliberately tried to make other people’s words seem like his own. As I watched my Twitter feed explode about the story by Moos, I saw a great many media critics and journalists felt the same way.
What needs to be recognized is that so many of us on the media beat have a long relationship with Romenesko, even though I doubt more than a couple of us have ever met him. (I recall during one recent conversation with Moos that I referred to Romenesko as “the unicorn of journalism,” the mythical beast of aggregation no one ever sees.)
Media critics and news junkies have been reading him for more than a decade. We admire the herculean work he does to get up early, post often, and tease out the most interesting details from a huge amount of reporting and commentary. We like his work and we respect him. We feel a connection. We trust him.
The fact that he almost never gives interviews, doesn’t show up on panels at conferences, and seems genuinely uninterested in glory or feeding his own ego is incredibly rare in this business.
What else? Oh right: he has the ability to send a shitload of traffic your way. That’s currency, power.
So, yes, we also want to be on his good side. We’ve benefitted from him over the years. I admit without hesitation that him linking to my site, even just a few times a year, has helped it establish credibility in the worlds of media criticism and journalism.
This tweet from New York Observer writer Kat Stoeffel summed up Romensko’s power and the unanimity of the response thus far:
Yes, it’s true: look at the list of media critics cited by Jack Shafer’s tweets. Almost all men. (Maybe all men, in fact.) See how it all seems like such a cozy little community of people standing up for one of their own?
We should remember this is often how people on the outside view the media. It may not be fair or true at a macro level, but the Romenesko affair is a notable case study.
I began this column listing a series of disclosures, and what’s followed is another expression of why you should be skeptical of what I and many other media critics think about the specifics of this. Even more so because the story that sparked this whole thing has yet to be published.