In 2011, when Tim Pool was twenty-five, he was living with his brother in Virginia, playing guitar and making skateboarding videos. He sometimes called himself anti-authoritarian or “pro-transparency,” but beyond that he didn’t think of himself as very political. After seeing a viral video from Occupy Wall Street, he bought a one-way bus ticket to New York. He had no training as a journalist, but he witnessed things that seemed newsworthy, so he took out his cell phone and started recording. One day, as the police tried to evict the protesters by force, he filmed for twenty-one hours straight. In case his phone got confiscated, he broadcast his footage online, in real time. He stuck a piece of masking tape to his phone and wrote on it with a Sharpie: “Live Stream.”
“Pool is clearly an activist and supporter of Occupy Wall Street as well as a reporter of it,” the press critic Jay Rosen wrote, on his blog. But, Rosen continued, “we should focus less on ‘who’s a journalist’ and more on valid acts of journalism.” Time’s Person of the Year for 2011 was the Protester, and the magazine mentioned Pool, among other citizen journalists. He started experimenting with new technologies: drones, gimbals, Google Glass. As the New York encampment wound down, he imagined a project called the Occumentary—he would drive to Occupy protests around the country, live-streaming the whole time. “A lot of documentaries are biased—they leave out a lot of information,” Pool said in an interview around that time. In the Occumentary, he said, “you are going to see every second of it. You will get to see everything real and raw.”
The Occumentary never happened. Instead, Pool became one of the first employees at Vice News, covering uprisings in Thailand, Turkey, Egypt, and Ferguson, Missouri. Although he now had access to expensive equipment, his style remained the same—breathless, immediate, live when possible. In Ferguson, he and his crew disagreed about how to cover the protests. “The camerawoman wanted to stay away from the action and interview Jesse Jackson,” Pool told me recently. “I went, ‘Jesse Jackson will say the same thing tomorrow. I’m gonna go cover what’s happening.’ She kept the cameras, and I went and live-streamed from my phone, walking around the street where grenades were going off. Guess which one got more views.”
Last year, Pool went solo, and began putting out his “Timcasts” on Twitter, Periscope, and YouTube. He now has a hundred and forty-five thousand YouTube subscribers—more than NPR, fewer than TMZ—and he uploads at least one video a day. His funding comes from ads and audience donations. Dozens of other YouTube demi-celebrities do what Pool does—what could be called amateur journalism, except that they sometimes make a good living from it.
In a video called “Understanding Fake News,” Pool sits at a picnic table near a motel parking lot. Wearing his trademark beanie and speaking in a tone of dispassionate authority, he explains that “institutional news” shouldn’t be trusted, because much of it is “propaganda” or “hyperpartisan content.” What would inspire a media company to mislead its audience? “Money. It’s really not that complicated.” By contrast, he says, “the content I produce isn’t coming at the behest of a corporation or a government. No one tells me what I can and can’t report on, and no one tells me what to say.” In part, his pitch is aesthetic—who are you going to believe, me or some stodgy guy in a suit? It also elides a simple truth: Pool has thrown off the yoke of corporate bureaucracy, but he’s still subject to market incentives. His news judgment may differ from CNN’s; nonetheless, they’re both subject to the whims of the consumer.
The dream of a disruptive alternative to the mass media is perhaps as old as the mass media. In “The Boys on the Bus,” Timothy Crouse’s meta-journalistic account of the 1972 Presidential campaign, Crouse watches a busload of reporters as they watch George McGovern deliver a tired stump speech. Deadlines loom. Nothing noteworthy happens. Walter Cronkite leaves town, complaining of back pain. Finally, a poll result comes out—“the only hard news of the day”—and the reporters rush to file variations on the same story. It’s June, 1972: burglars are breaking into the Watergate Hotel, and yet America’s newspapers are full of horse-race drudgery. This is not, in Crouse’s telling, the result of organized greed or partisan collusion. Rather, he blames conformity, laziness, and “the old formulas of classic objective journalism”: “If the candidate spouted fulsome bullshit all day, the formula made it hard for a reporter to say so directly.”
Crouse encounters a few journalists who aim to cut through the bullshit. One is Michael Shamberg, the long-haired founder of a cable-TV startup called Top Value Television, who disparages the slick, expensive style of network news. Shamberg’s footage, Crouse writes, was “blurry, jiggly,” and “extraordinarily intimate.” Another is Hunter S. Thompson, who is portrayed as an amphetamine-addled goon with boundless talent and no tact. “After the revolution,” a traditional reporter tells Crouse, “we’ll all write like Hunter.”
Whether we’re living after the revolution or after the fall, this prediction has largely come true. Forget cable: anyone who’s on Medium or Tumblr is now free to write like Hunter Thompson, and anyone with a cell phone can beam jiggly, intimate footage to a potentially unlimited audience. The most arresting video I saw this year appeared on the Periscope feed of a far-right social-media pundit named Faith Goldy, who was in Charlottesville, Virginia, covering the white-nationalist rally there. After the rally was shut down by police, Goldy spotted a group of Black Lives Matter protesters and tagged along, live-streaming as she went. “Black Lives Matter is allowed to march, the alt-right is not,” Goldy said, narrating into her phone.
A woman near Goldy overheard her. “Are you with the alt-right?” she shouted. “Get away from here!”
“I’m just looking to learn about inclusion and diversity,” Goldy said, raising her eyebrows sarcastically.
At one point, Goldy said, “I’m a little bit trapped in here. Let me get to the periphery.” A few seconds later, a Dodge Challenger ripped through the crowd, sending bodies flying into the air. “Oh, shit!” Goldy screamed. “Oh God, oh God, oh God.” She ran away, her phone’s lens bobbing wildly toward the sky. “I’m gonna find a safe space,” she said.
During Pool’s time as an independent journalist, he has interviewed many reviled far-right figures, including the ironic white nationalist Baked Alaska and members of the “Western chauvinist” group the Proud Boys. He doesn’t always ask them tough questions. “I’m not on anybody’s side, but I let everyone have their say,” Pool told me. “I try not to judge people.” This sounds noble, even obvious. Yet not all opinions deserve to be weighted equally, and, though editing may create opportunities for bias, it also allows for context, narrative structure, and editorial pushback. A journalist’s first task is to gather information without fear or favor. The next task, which is equally crucial, is to scrutinize the data—to separate the facts from the fulsome bullshit.
“Look at what’s happening last night in Sweden,” President Trump said in February, at a rally in Florida, during an Islamophobic riff about refugees. “They took in large numbers. They’re having problems like they never thought possible.” He was referring, not quite accurately, to a segment he’d seen on Fox News, which was itself not quite accurate. “Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking?” Carl Bildt, the former Prime Minister of Sweden, tweeted. Paul Joseph Watson, an editor-at-large at InfoWars, seemed to support Trump’s comment, tweeting, facetiously, “Malmo is known as ‘Sweden’s Chicago’ because mass immigration is so beneficial.”
Pool, on his YouTube channel, weighted these opinions more or less equally. “I don’t side with anybody,” he said. “We’re gonna get into the fray and figure out what the hell is going on.” A few days later, he arrived in Sweden. (First, his plane stopped in Lisbon and Copenhagen. I can attest to this, because I saw the footage on his YouTube channel. I have spent many precious minutes watching Tim Pool sit in traffic, or pass through airport security, or walk in circles waiting for something interesting to happen, all in the name of transparency.)
His trip was funded by donations, including two thousand dollars from Paul Joseph Watson. Pool spent his days wandering around semi-indiscriminately and interviewing locals, and his nights uploading highlights from the day’s footage. Before Pool and his co-producer visited Rosengård, a majority-immigrant neighborhood in Malmö, they left their most expensive equipment at their hotel, as a precaution. But when they got to Rosengård the streets were nearly empty. “It’s kinda boring,” Pool said. “I don’t know what you’d expect to happen here. It’s just a neighborhood.”
The next day, he interviewed a deputy mayor of Malmö, who appeared to have a reasonable grasp on the relevant crime statistics and a plausible explanation for the city’s recent spike in murders. Perhaps it was the result not of immigration, the deputy mayor said, but of a power vacuum caused by the demise of two local gangs. Pool neither confirmed nor contradicted this; instead, as he left the interview, he spoke directly to the camera. “He’s a politician,” Pool said. “That’s a very liberal perspective, so take that into account.”
Pool then cut to a meandering interview with Johan, a young guy with a man bun, who seemed to have no special expertise other than being a resident of Rosengård. “Is it possible that crime could get worse?” Pool asked him. “I mean, you live here.”
“I don’t know,” Johan said.
Pool turned to the camera and wrapped up the video: “Comment below, I will read your comments, and I’ll see you all tomorrow.”
Every news consumer should be on guard against flimsy arguments or tendentious cuts. We can and should question journalists’ motives. But, if we demand that journalists have no motives at all, we’ll be forced to outsource the job to algorithms and drones, which are—so far, at least—even less thoughtful than humans. ♦