October 27, 2010

Sustainable Expertise

I’ve made it a point to introduce the idea of “complacency of expertise” in all my classes. I illustrate this idea with a true story.

Several years ago I saw a news story and video on the internet (lost to me now) about an attempt to film a mass skydiving link-up, in which dozens of skydivers come together in a big mid-air pattern. The guy running the show, and doing the filming, was an expert skydiver and skydiving instructor. He mounted a video camera on his helmet for the event. Everything is going along fine — all the divers linked up then broke apart then opened their parachutes — until we clearly hear the expert say “oh no.” Then the picture scrambles as the skydiving expert goes out of control.

He had jumped out the the airplane without putting on a parachute.

He was an expert.

I believe he’d become complacent in his expertise.

I’ve argued that journalists should not think of themselves as expert in anything. I equate, for example, Judith Miller with that expert skydiver. If anything, journalists should be experts in the fear of failing their jobs of being custodians of facts who operate with a discipline of verification.

Opinion journalists, however, are another matter. While opinion journalists still ought to cling to that fear of failing (and the craft of reporting), some clearly do develop expertise. Think George Will and politics.

The key to success — i.e. fulfilling the primary purpose of journalism (to give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing) — is developing a routine (the craft of reporting) based on the fear of failing that leads to what I’m calling sustainable expertise. That’s the kind of expertise that prevents you from jumping out of an airplane without a parachute.

The next two subjects of my on-going examination of opinion journalism will be two men who I think have developed something like sustainable expertise: Thomas Friedman and Nicholas Kristof.

One Response

  1. […] rhetoric of opinion journalism. It is topic that has increasingly piqued  my interest. And as I mentioned last week, the next two subjects will be Thomas Friedman and Nicholas […]