A challenging time for the pros
Thursday, April 19, 2001 by Dave Winer.
First, a disclaimer. I was a math major in college. I didn't study practical mathematics, I studied a branch of topology called graph theory. At the time it was considered pretty esoteric stuff, but I loved it because it stretched my mind in ways that I liked.
To me the meaning of a word is itself interesting. And the relationship between words is even more interesting. I'm also a humanist. The software I make, although some people feel it is not easy to use, is honed to be so, because I'm interested in the human mind. These disclaimers are part of integrity, but have little to do with honesty. Permit me to explain with an example.
Pick a human endeavor that's famous for lack of honesty. Car salesman comes to mind. (With apologies to honest car salesmen.)
Suppose Joe is a car salesman. The most slimey of them all, he misleads and lies all the time. Every statement he makes has to be analyzed in utmost detail to figure out what he really means. It's exhausting.
Now suppose Joe starts writing a column on the Web or in his local newspaper. Right up front it says Joe is a car salesman at Utopia Motors. He proceeds to lie all over the place and mislead and talks about how much better his products are than his main competitor, Slidell Cars and Trucks.
Is Joe honest? Of course not (by definition). Does he have integrity? Yes, he has some integrity because he is being true to what he said he is. If he had not told you he was a car salesman and had written his story as if he were a mere car user, then he would have very little integrity, and the publication he wrote for would have a problem.
This is going on in the real world all the time. I write a column called DaveNet. Does it have integrity? It's a good question, and I'm not sure of the answer. I try to disclose my interests, maybe I don't succeed in doing that, or perhaps a new reader comes along and doesn't understand that I'm often writing about software I create. I try to not push my software too much through DaveNet. On the other hand Scripting News is an hour-to-hour log of my work. Inevitably it does push what I do because that's what it's about. But I don't tell all there. So perhaps that's an integrity problem.
In other words it's an integrity problem only to the extent that I fail to inform the reader of an interest that colors what I write. If I say Anne's software sucks without saying I have software that competes with Anne's then I am suffering from a lack of integrity. To say that I "blatantly promote" my own software is, emphatically, not an integrity challenge. The blatant part of it is my defense. If I did it in an unobvious way, then my integrity is definitely on the table.
Consider another example. On Monday Reuters ran a story with extensive quotes from Dan Bricklin, including one that I took issue with about the quality of work of people who write weblogs. It was right on topic, and I nailed Dan, perhaps unfairly.
Dan says that he was misquoted. Being a software developer myself, as Dan is, I tend to believe him. I've been misquoted myself. I'm suspicious when the misquote tends to favor the person writing the story. In the Reuters example, the story was carefully staged (so it seemed to me) to make it clear that what the amateurs were doing was in no way a threat to pros. Of course the piece was written by a professional journalist. To me, with my own unique perspective, it seemed to be an ad for the pros at the expense of the amateurs.
One of the things I've learned in the last few days is that many professional writers don't want to examine their own integrity. This in itself is an integrity problem.
The challenge for professional journalists is this -- can they write a story that could undermine their own livelihood? I have doubts about this. But what if a change, even a revolution, is in process that changes the means by which people get fact and opinion? Can we depend on the BigPub's to carry that story fairly without coloring it, or are disclaimers required, like the one that our hypothetical car salesman provided, so we can understand the context of the writing?
Now it's only fair to say that I make software that makes it easy for people to write for the Web without working for a professional publication. If you poke around my site you'll find it, easily.
I have an interest in the path being clear for amateur writers to contribute to the flow of news and information, perhaps even overtake the professionals. I've been pretty clear about this, I hope, since the inception of DaveNet, in 1994.
I also have an interest in the pros adopting the techniques of the amateurs, doing less shaping, coloring and casting of news, and more straight delivery. As in my work with the BigCo's on interop, I'd like to see a melding of technique. I think the pros can teach the amateurs, and vice versa, just as the LittleCo's can do things that the Big Ones can't. Win-wins, even partnerships, are possible.
A user of a car has little to disclaim other than he or she is a user. Not much to say there, because the prose explains itself. This is the highest integrity writing, even though it may not be the most insightful or truthful. That's why the sentence at the end of my last piece is almost a tautology, fully self-evident. But my last piece pushed a lot of buttons. That in itself is interesting.