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.
We should be mining online data for useful information, and pointing out instances where flackery or momentary enthusiasms have overwhelmed judgment. The role of journalists as crusaders remains, and the profession can and should do much more to explore the systemic ills of our consumer economy. Enlisting the aid of readers, and listening to their voices, is far better than end-of-days handwringing. And it may be the best way to win the confidence of a public that is so often hostile to journalism.
Journalists should recognize that there is an opportunity in the fact that the information that people need most is often the information that requires the greatest effort to obtain. We have talked about cars and stereo equipment, but it is not going to make a huge difference to my well-being if I choose a Honda or a Toyota or a Chrysler minivan for my family. But understanding how different HMOs treat certain kinds of claims, or how different state laws can affect mortgage loans around the nation, or uncovering patterns of discrimination against the young, or the old, or the female, or the non-white, or the immigrant—all of these things still cry out for the energies of consumer reporters. Such reporting can be—and is already being—made stronger by the inclusion of voices that previously were hard to hear.
It makes our jobs as journalists harder—there is so much more to sift through—but the value we add is as great as ever, maybe even greater.