The Sunday Inquirer scorched the earth to cover the blogs v newspapers debate, roping in Jeff Jarvis to posit how the era of newspaper may be over, Hugh Hewitt to argue how conservative blogs balance the liberal-dominated mainstream media, Richard Stengel to remind that to own a newspaper is to own a still-profitable public trust.
The Currents section's final word came from our newest op-ed columnist, Jonathan Last, who wrote a piece headlined, "Blog, humbug!: Good writing, news-gathering lose to speed and vehemence."
"Close-minded at a minimum," harumphed blogger Karl Martino by e-mail this morning, who underlined Last's words, "Being a good writer helps a blogger about as much as a good singing voice helps a broadcast
There's some back story to this. Editorial page editor Chris Satullo originally had this notion that Last would write something provocative about blogs. I would get to wildly respond. And Satullo would then weigh in as the wise middle party.
We did it, then Satullo learned that another editor had signed on Jarvis, Hewitt and Stengel, who has already written their pieces. So Last's lived. Mine and Satullo died.
Wonderful thing, a blog. Here's the original conversation as it went.
Jonathan Last: I'd been suspicious of the Internet for a long time, but it wasn't until last year that I became convinced it was the locus of all evil in the known universe. A press flack called me from one of America's most distinguished think tanks and invited me to participate in a panel on "The Impact of the New Media." The panel discussion, he explained, would work like this: Six distinguished panelists, three from the Old Media and three from the New Media would argue on stage in a discussion moderated by another famous Old Media personage. I was invited to be one of five bloggers who would sit in the audience blogging about the panel discussion, with our comments to be projected on a screen above the stage, in real time!
In its perfect ridiculousness this stunt struck me as a good bit of synecdoche. The New Media in general, and blogs in particular, are concerned primarily with the meta, or the meta-meta. Or maybe the meta-meta-meta. And this makes the blogosphere occasionally useful, often harmful, and ultimately pointless.
Some caveats. First, the Internet pays my mortgage, so I have a vested interest in its continued success. I've been the online editor of The Weekly Standard since 2001, but I was dabbling on the interweb long before that. I started a Webzine with two college friends in 1997, before webzines were cool. In 2004 I started a little blog. I may be an idiot, but I'm not a Luddite.
Second, I've met, interviewed, and worked with a lot of bloggers over the years and for the most part, they're swell folks. The defects which I'll point out over the course of this exchange are largely--if not exclusively--inherent in the medium, and not the result of individual failings.
Third, it's not all bad news. I've argued before that blogs can be a real force for good when they act as supra fact-checkers. They can add real value when they quickly elevate experts in obscure topics to the fore of public discussion. And they have enormous potential to enable on-the-ground reporting when news happens suddenly or in remote locations. We've seen some of this potential realized, but not nearly so much as one might have hoped.
Balanced against these goods are the pernicious effects of blogs: They elevate analysis over newsgathering; they value speed over judiciousness; and they encourage the practice of journalism to turn in on itself, to tend ever more toward navel-gazing.
This last bit is the most annoying--show me a New York Times story on war in Sudan and I'll show you 20 bloggers who think the real story is how the Times fails in its coverage of war in Sudan. But the biggest evil of blogs is the first flaw, blogging's original sin: the discounting of news gathering in favor news analysis.
Bloggers are forever telling us how easy journalism is, yet very few of them have ever really practiced it. Sure, they may have written a raft of opinion pieces that compare favorably to the work of Molly Ivins or Ann Coulter, but opinion writing is a tiny--and let's be honest, inconsequential--corner of the journalism world. Real journalism, which is to say, adding to the store of public knowledge by reporting news, is a difficult, thankless, and often unpleasant task. Yet bloggers want no part of it. Everyone wants E.J. Dionne's job; no one wants to be Michael Dobbs.
There are other substantive critiques of the blogosphere. Trevor Butterworth notes that the "dismal fate of blogging" is that "it renders the word even more evanescent than journalism; yoked, as bloggers are, to the unending cycle of news and the need to post four or five times a day, five days a week, 50 weeks of the year, blogging is the closest literary culture has come to instant obsolescence." Andrew Keen worries notes that the outbreak of blogs has turned us into a world where everyone writes and no one reads. "Without an elite mainstream media," Keen writes, "we will lose our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard."
But let's save the principled defense of elitism for later. For now, I'll leave you with the suggestion that the blog tide may have already reached its high-water mark. Daniel Gross makes the case in Slate that the blog bubble is about to burst. A Gallup survey showed that in 2005, the blog audience showed zero growth for the first time in the medium's history.
As a long-term proposition, I don't buy the superiority of blogs and the New Media any more than I bought the notion that America Online was a more valuable property than Time-Warner. The Old Media--the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Atlantic Monthly--add to the store of public information in ways which seem irreplaceable. Do they have problems? Sure. Are some journalists bad at their jobs? Absolutely. But taken as a whole, the Old Media performs an enormous and valuable function which the New Media is neither able, nor inclined, to emulate.
And the marketplace is slowly coming to understand that.
To which I replied: Well this is curious indeed. We've surely slipped into some bizarro world here - a master of the online world ripping blogs, while an ink-stained wretch of 25 years defends them. But that is exactly what I feel the need to do after your rant. Is it blogs you don't like, or the people who write them? Sorry for that jab - I've been blogging for 10 months straight now, and have learned that if you don't play knives out, you'll never last. Blogs aren't the scourge of the universe. They aren't going to save the universe either, but they're making it more fun to live in.
I like the desktop theorists who see blogs as the latest expression of a populist revolution that is redistributing power in our society, from music companies to music lovers, from mainstream media to the MSM's audience. In process, they are helping the graying media outlets - they make us faster,
deeper, broader and, finally, more responsive. I must sound like I've got Stockholm Syndrome here, but I truly think we are rewriting the rules day by day as we attempt to prove our relevance at a time of great economic threat.
One of the benefits has been the introduction of new voices into the mix. As you know, there's a low bar to entry in the blogosphere. Maybe there's no bar at all. One needn't go to J-school or have worked his or her way up from the police beat to have an opportunity to be heard. One just has to say something worth hearing. (It helps to have no other full-time job, because your blog has an enormous appetite for whatever you have to say.)
I spend each day reading what other bloggers write, and what some wag said of Hollywood they could update to the blogosphere - there is one typewriter and 100 copy machines. Stuff gets cut and pasted. Whether it's a political viewpoint or a rant or rave about a product - but there's a strata in the mainstream media that is guilty of the same sort of purloined lettering. More often online you get to hear from people who know a lot about something, and now it is a lot easier for them to be heard by a larger audience in a moment's notice. (See the Dan Rather affair.)
I'm not going to measure the health of blogging by the size of the audience just yet. It is still too new, and we haven't found ways of corralling all of the best posts into formats that would invite my mother, for instance, to feel comfortable trying out some of the new opinion-makers. When I started blogging in May, Technorati was tracking nine million blogs. It's tracking more than 30 million now. Amid those doubling-every-5 ½-months numbers are spam blogs, product blogs, scam blogs and navel-gazing blogs, but there are also some of the crispest voices out there, those learning to write by writing, saying things for the first time, and capturing the world with the fresh eyes of a tourist. It's exciting to watch it happen. And I'm happy to learn from them.
Finally, if anyone is still out there, Chris Satullo left his mark: Gentlemen - You've laid out the terms of my ambivalence adeptly. I feel about blogs the way I often feel about my teenage children: They are wonderful. They give me hope and a glimpse of a better world. They offer new energy and authenticity. They are, in short, The Future (cue the trumpets).
Alas, they are also are immature, disrespectful, annoyingly self-absorbed and maddeningly unwilling to admit their dependence on their elders.
Let me zero in on sine points you've raised. Jonathan focuses on how journalism is something more than bloviation. He stresses the notions of talent and skill. I'd also like to suggest that journalism is a discipline of mind, much lacking amid the current vogue for partisanship and truthiness.
I'm not suggesting that this discipline of mind is universally possessed or displayed by all those who call themselves journalists. (I also want to make no defense of the insularity, arrogance and cluelessness of long-time journalists to which Dan rightly sees the blogosphere as a corrective.)
Still, to extend Jonathan's sports metaphor, the fact that, say, Albert Pujols has an unusual discipline that makes him a great hitter is not disproved because some people in the major leagues bat under .200. There's a reason those who aren't very good aren't very good. They lack the turn of mind.
What is that turn of mind? I'd say it begins with that thorough-going skepticism summed up in the old journalism school axiom, "If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out." That skepticism can corrode easily into cheap cynicism or gotcha negativity, but at its best it shines its most penetrating light on its own assumptions, biases and heroes. This is what proponents of the "all bias, all the time" critique of journalism don't get, or don't want to get. Not everyone is partisan in the way these partisan press critics themselves are; some people work to develop a principled skepticism that reduces, not eliminates, but reduces the effect of the subjective prism. We call those people, or used to, journalists.
This skeptical discipline of mind is more in love with facts (stubborn, surprising facts) than with its own opinions.
Yet it also knows that much of what masquerades as fact is something quite different; it is dedicated to the painstaking work of piercing the disguise.
It is a skepticism that revels in the moments when reporting reveals that the story you thought you had going in was wrong, but a different, more interesting one has emerged. It is a discipline of mind that distrusts superlatives and absolutes, and doesn't fear the task of charting shades of gray. It is a discipline of mind that is fundamentally democratic, that believes for the Republic to work, all types of voices must have their full and fair say, including voices with which one strongly disagrees..
It's a discipline of mind that operates in the quaint belief that the truth, if you can find it, will always kill off more viruses than it unleashes.
I still see this discipline of mind at work in mainstream media - though not anywhere near often enough and too rarely at the high-profile New York and Washington levels from which most people form their sense of how journalism works.
I see this discipline of mind almost nowhere at work in the blogosphere, and this is what bothers me.
The fabled fact-checking function of blogs, which has had its much-advertised shining moments, seems almost always to have had a root motivation that was partisan. This is not to say that the fact-checking was not accurate, potent and useful. It is just to say that those who are so chuffed with themselves about having caught some MSM source in an error could never be counted on to do the same corrective work on writers or leaders whom they see as being on the same team as them.
Fine, some say, but the Internet is a varied place. Someone else, from the other side, will play the role of fact-checker.
Here's the problem: If every fact-checker is motivated by ideology or partisanship, then every person who is on the opposite side of the ideological or partisan divide will feel free to discredit and/or ignore the fact-checking done by the other side.
This is what is happening. We are rapidly devolving into a dialogue of the deaf between blue-state facts and red-state facts; we have irreconciliable "fact wars" with no stable common ground, no referee, no honest broker.
Journalists used to be regarded as the honest brokers (or the best facsimile available). That was before a long interaction between journalists' failures and the agenda of partisans who foundit inconvenient to have honest brokers around destroyed the public trust required to sustain that journalistic role.
So that's what has me in despair. This wonderful new medium, that really could provide much of the energy for citizen-driven dialogue and democracy that its proponent claim, is losing its potential because it was colonized first by too many screamers, partisans, ideologues and propagandists. Meanwhile, the many bloggers who don't fit that description too often make common cause with the propagandists, because each shares a rhetoric of disdain for the MSM.
I have other, similar thoughts about the distressing quality of dialogue on the blogosphere that stem from my years of work in the vineyards of citizen dialogue. I see precisely the wrong kind of dialogue winning out in the blogosphere, a kind of Grensham's Law syndrome of "bad" dialogue driving out good. But I'll save that for another time, seeing how long this entry has gone.
Still there. If we had Blinq t-shirts I'd send you one. There was even a Last reponse to me, before Chris weighed in, but since it was out-of-order, I didn't include it. To read that, send a self-addressed stamp envelope to GETALIFE at 400 North Broad, Philadelphia, PA 19101, c/o Blinq
UPDATE: Attytood has joined the party. A highlight:
Let it go, Chris, or to paraphrase Blue Oyster Cult, don't fear the blogger -- even when there's more cowbell.
Philebrity opines, too. Will translate the lede if you send me a Western Union telegram.