EDITORIAL: Who’s a journalist?

LONG AGO I USED TO DO something like what “David” did in Ancram. I didn’t wear a mask back then, but I had long hair, scruffy clothes and what was then a “small” portable video camera. David’s black hoodie was topped by a black cowl, leaving only his eyes and forehead exposed. Even by my lax standards, that’s a creepy costume.

David showed up unannounced at Ancram Town Hall around noon on March 17. His phone was set to record video, which he did for about half an hour. The first person he encountered and recorded was Town Clerk Monica Cleveland, who helped him obtain a copy of the town budget. He narrates what he sees as he flips through the document. It appears he’s familiar with municipal budget spreadsheets.

He remarks on the unlit Town Hall corridor. He asks the empty space where the people are. He turns back toward the main entrance to the building and Town Supervisor Art Bassin stands there. The supervisor asks David his name, which David repeats several times. No last name.

You can read about the encounter in Diane Valden’s story online at:

https://www.columbiapaper.com/2022/03/thats-who-that-masked-man-was/

or read it in our March 31 issue (“That’s who that masked man was?” Page 1). Or watch it for yourself on YouTube.

On the recording Mr. Bassin asks who David works for. ‘The people,” David says. Mr. Bassin asks whether that’s the people of Ancram. Mr. Bassin asks David to leave. David says he will when he’s done. Done with what? Done with taking pictures with his camera. Mr. Bassin says he will call the police. David dismisses that as “a waste of resources.”

At about this point in their restrained confrontation the tables turn. It’s still a Socratic dialogue, with the teacher answering questions with new questions. But the teacher and student have changed places. David is questioning Mr. Bassin’s questions. Mr. Bassin calls the police and asks for an officer to escort a person out of the building who is acting “a little weird.” David asks Mr. Bassin whether “acting weird” is a crime. He questions Mr. Bassin about the supervisor’s knowledge of the First Amendment of the Constitution.

During their verbal sparring David describes himself as a journalist, but when asked what press or news organization assigned him to Ancram he says it was the people.

What we’re seeing here is the process of redefining journalism in real time. It’s a work in progress. It seems easier to understand what is and isn’t journalism when we see news reports from wartime Ukraine. The rules are fuzzier when it comes to defining journalism in peacetime Ancram.

So it’s not surprising that Mr. Bassin was dissatisfied with David’s evasive answers about the people having assigned David this task. But there are some common sense standards that might make what’s happening clearer. Part of what makes David’s ramble through Ancram Town Hall so watchable is that David acts both as narrator and critic. His patter has the feel of an illusionist: dismissive one moment, ironic the next. He’s calm and often quite courteous. It’s performance art and he’s the artist.

Clearly, he’s also a provocateur with communication skills well suited to the world of social media. Which hat is he wearing here?

He can call himself a journalist if he wants. He didn’t storm the Ancram Town Hall. He walked in the side door and asked for documents available to the public. And then he posted the video record of his visit on YouTube.

In political terms David’s video is a test of the limits of transparency. It’s what state and federal freedom of information laws intended. It’s what the First Amendment of the Constitution protects. So before anybody calls the police, everybody should be clear on the rules of journalistic engagement.

When I visited YouTube Monday to view David’s video, I noticed that about 250 people had watched the video. All of them said they liked it.

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