All of this is leaving journalism a bit on the sidelines. It certainly raises issues of interest about how the profession is, or should be, changing under the impact of the Web. For what we see here is really a reflection of a classic ambivalence in American culture, the same one referred to at the start of this article—the divide between a faith in democratic decision-making and a competing fondness for expertise (an inherently elitist concept). It used to be a common trope of American history to try to divide the various political movements and personalities into the simple distinction between Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians. Those who followed the former were at peace with the wisdom of the crowd—indeed, they could be said to be the most important advocates of the concept in modern history. Jefferson famously said he would sooner trust the opinion of a ploughman than of a professor (although, like a good deal of Jefferson’s rhetoric, this may be safely attributed to political pandering; he did, after all, pride himself more on founding the University of Virginia than he did on his service as president of the United States). Hamilton’s devotees were leery of the crowd’s judgment and put their faith in persons of (in their view) extraordinary ability.
A reverence for experts has assumed many forms over the course of American history. The almost godlike status of George Washington is perhaps an extreme example, but the deference shown to him and to subsequent war heroes has been one of the central facts of presidential politics, down to the present moment. Today, though, we are more likely to place business leaders on a pedestal than we are to anoint our politicians. We honor the Jack Welches and Steve Jobses of the world, and tend to overstate their contributions, forget their blunders, and ignore the roles that circumstance and lucky timing have played in their careers.
The tension between the many and the one is a central theme of American culture. And against all the politicians and salesmen who have flattered the sentiment of the crowd, there has stood a Ralph Waldo Emerson to honor the judgment of the individual. In “Self-Reliance,” Emerson makes his most impassioned plea for the worth of the individual and the individual’s perceptions. Yet Emerson is not the simple booster of the gifted individual he is sometimes made to be. For it is not the right choice that concerns him as much as it is the right process—in “Self-Reliance,” he makes clear that it is as foolish to be misled by an uncritical acceptance of expert opinion as it is to follow the whims of the ignorant masses. Ultimately, the key is to think for oneself.
Here, perhaps, we can find journalism’s place in the current maelstrom of change. Consumer reporters and editors have already abandoned the game of trying to offer comprehensive guidance—it simply is not possible. But journalists can, and do, bring a professional (dare I say objective?) perspective to the enterprise. Reporters can and should embrace their “citizen” competition, and they should use it. Because this explosion of citizen opinion on the Web is both a story in itself and a source of stories, a challenge to the traditional hegemony of the professional journalist and an opportunity to earn again, in new ways, the respect of readers and viewers.
After all, we are all looking for “filters” that allow us to glean information efficiently from the cornucopia of it that flows through our computers, our cell phones, our lives. Crowd wisdom (as exemplified by Google) is one way to do this, but turning to experts is another. And when journalistic experts add to their own arsenal of intellectual weapons the collective wisdom of the crowd, then that arsenal becomes more formidable. That crowd opinion, which seems at first to be a challenge, can become something all journalists are used to, and rely upon—a source.