Monday, April 24, 2006

Last Now And Always

Uh oh, I feel another freeper attack on those nasty little unkempt, unshaven (for the guys only, I suppose), immature little liberal bloggers coming on again, courtesy of Jonathan Last in the Philadelphia Inquirer (this appeared yesterday). And by the way, I use a bad word later in this post (sorry, but it’s appropriate).

Good writing, news-gathering lose to speed and vehemence.
By Jonathan Last

It wasn't until last year that I became convinced the Internet was the locus of all evil in the known universe.

You may find this statement odd. After all, 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, and I was dabbling on the InterWeb long before that. I launched a Web zine with two college friends in 1997, before Web zines were cool. In 2004, I started a little blog. I may be an idiot, but I'm not a Luddite.
This is a particularly clever tactic by Last, I have to admit. His first sentence is a nice hook that makes you want to keep reading, but then he sneaks in plugs to other internet stuff he’s done that I basically don’t care about in an effort to establish his online “cred” (with a touch of humility, which is welcome for a change). I really haven’t found any lefty bloggers who beat you over the head with their accomplishments like that (though some easily could), but I’ve stumbled across a few right wingers who absolutely insist on telling you how accomplished they are before they get to the point they’re trying to make, assuming they ever do that.

But last year, a flack called me from one of America's most prestigious think tanks and invited me to participate in a panel on "The Impact of the New Media." The event, he explained, would work like this: Six distinguished panelists, three from the Old Media and three from the New Media, would argue onstage 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!
An interesting idea, I have to admit. But to me, some sort of “dog and pony show” like this helps reinforce the image of bloggers as self-obsessed, myopic head cases who think that their opinions should reign supreme over all proven fact and any other aspect of discernible reality. To me, the importance of this “new media” is in the capability of providing context and opinion to a story or editorial of some type or another, like I’m trying to do at this moment. Yeah, sure, I throw in “snark” (and I have a feeling I’ll be doing that shortly), but I’m really also trying to provide substance, and the unfortunate fact is that it’s very hard for me to do that in “real time” or certainly in anything like the forum Last described above.

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 (that is, commenting on commentary), which makes the blogosphere occasionally useful, often harmful, and ultimately pointless.
Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary defines “synecdoche,” by the way, as “sense, interpretation,” or “a figure of speech by which a part is put for the whole.” So the answer to the question is no; I don’t know what the hell Last is talking about either. He seemed to be agreeing with me with his “commenting on the commentary” statement, but then he says blogs are “ultimately pointless”?

Well, gee, I guess that just wraps it up for yours truly, then, doesn’t it? Bye bye, so long, farewell, I’m shutting this site down forever. See ya’ (no name-calling, Doomsy, got it?).

I've met, interviewed, and worked with a lot of bloggers over the years, and for the most part, they're swell folks.
I’m sure they send you cards at Christmas also (nice blogger, nice blogger…here’s another “exclusive” White House memoranda on Dubya that just got leaked so you can post about it and tell all your friends – make sure you play nice and put away all your toys).

The defects I see are largely - maybe even exclusively - inherent in the medium, and not the result of individual failings. Whether the person blogging is a pajama-clad lawyer or a Pulitzer-winning journalist, the medium is the message, and the message of blogging is: More! FASTER!
Uh, OK, I agree a bit, though it sounds like he’s trying to absolve individuals of culpability in this, though I’m not sure why. If I screw something up, I have to stand up and “take the hit” and not blame it on the notion that “this is a blog and I have to get my post out before everybody else.”

And by the way, I hope Last isn’t trying to sneak in a plug for Roger Simon’s “Pajamas Media” mess with that reference. Besides, I haven’t worn PJs for years. If I’m REALLY steamed at Dubya, for example, I may even “go commando” when blogging. You know what I’m saying?

Blogs can be a real force for good when they act as supra fact-checkers. They can add serious value when they quickly elevate experts in obscure topics to the fore of public discussion (see, for example, the Bush "National Guard memo" fracas here).
Oh, cute. How typical for a freeper to cite something that absolves their side of any blame. You want to mention the Bush National Guard memo that Dan Rather couldn’t prove was authentic (which, by the way, DOES NOT invalidate the fact that Dubya, like other sons of privilege during the Vietnam War era, received preferential treatment in the process of securing National Guard service, with such service being A MUCH EASIER GIG then than now)? OK. How about mentioning the numerous high-profile lefty sites that exposed the fact that the only thing not plagiarized by one time red-state Washington Post blogger Ben Domenech was his name? You want to try that one on?

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, as in sites such as Iraq the Model, but not nearly so much as one might have hoped.
I acknowledge your good point about the ability for blogs to capture live news stories (so blogs aren’t “ultimately pointless” after all?).

Balanced against these goods are the pernicious effects of blogs: They elevate analysis over news-gathering; they value speed over judiciousness; and they encourage the practice of journalism to turn in on itself, to tend ever more toward navel-gazing.
I agreed with that up to the “navel-gazing” part. Why is it that when reporters editorialize it’s called “analysis” - hopefully valuable to a degree - but when bloggers do that, it’s automatically “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.
And why exactly is that a problem? If 20 bloggers care enough to bring the war in Sudan to the attention of anyone who may read their posts, isn’t that a lot better than reading, for example, every little nauseating detail on Katie Holmes’s “silent” birth (and by the way, does it make me a prude to point out that no one is saying anything about the fact that those two show biz egotists have essentially “parented” a child out of wedlock? As long as Cruise’s publicity mill is generating all of these “stories” about their daughter and related developments, as well as whatever movie it is that he’ll be starring in next – Mission: Impossible 3 I guess – why doesn’t he have anything to say about that?).

But the biggest evil of blogs is that first flaw, blogging's original sin: the discounting of news-gathering in favor of news analysis. Bloggers are forever telling us how easy journalism is, yet very few of them have ever really practiced it.
I have never said in this space that journalism is easy, and I never would. I obtained a degree in journalism a whole other lifetime ago, and I remember full well how hard I had to work for it. With many of these posts – though not this one, I suppose – I try to lead in with information about the topic so you, dear reader, are “on board” with me before I subject you to my opinion.

What lefty bloggers rail about generally (including me) is the cozy relationship much of the established media that we know and at times respect has with those in power, whether we are talking about corporations or politicians. We also get highly POed when we see legitimate journalists caving to the so-called “liberal bias” straw man and trying to “dumb down” stories to audiences who primarily won’t get what the story is about anyway because they’re hopelessly uninformed (lots of reasons there) or hopelessly biased. We think of what we grew up with as established media in this country and see those who should be honoring that legacy failing miserably at it or deciding not to even respect or understand the traditions and values to which they have been entrusted by their forbears (sorry for the literary flourish here, but I take this stuff HIGHLY SERIOUSLY).

Sure, they may have written opinion pieces that compare favorably to the work of Molly Ivins or Ann Coulter…
To pair Molly Ivins with the female right-wing criminal in this context is highly insulting to the former, who is a legendary, accomplished professional, as opposed to the latter, who is a shrieking literary psychotic.

…but opinion writing is a tiny - and let's be honest, inconsequential - corner of the journalism world.
I suppose, with people like Jim Brady and Deborah Howell in charge of that task at The Washington Post, I would be forced reluctantly to agree with Last on that one (though it certainly should not be that way, of course…yes, I’m being a bit facetious here).

Real journalism - the practice of adding to the store of public knowledge by reporting news - is a difficult, thankless, and often unpleasant task. Bloggers want no part of it.
How the hell do you know? Besides, you stated previously that some bloggers ARE journalists (such as Wonkette's Ana Marie Cox).

Everyone wants E.J. Dionne's job; no one wants to be Michael Dobbs.
Gee, I wonder why Last would mention the reporter Michael Dobbs from The Washington Post? Why, I can’t possibly imagine…

And by the way, I could never be E.J. Dionne – I have great respect for his writing because, whether or not I agree with it, though I almost always do, I can tell it is a product of great intelligence and compassion. I can only be myself, for better or worse.

There are other substantive critiques of the blogosphere. Writing for the Financial Times, 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 that the outbreak of blogs has turned us into a world where everyone writes and no one reads: "Without an elite mainstream media, we will lose our memory for things learnt, read, experienced, or heard."
Last is right about what Keen and Butterworth have written. They are “substantive, literary critiques,” and after reading a good bit of each, I should point out that addressing them would be the subject of at least one other entire post, though they are largely well-researched pieces of reporting. However, it should not be a surprise to learn that they are slanted towards the conservative side of things, which is, after all, the world Last knows.

Keen and Butterworth’s pieces take a dim view of blogging in general, playing up the ultimate obsolescence of the writing. That has some truth, but I would argue that it has only a slightly shorter “shelf life” than news from established media sources would have anyway.

Another worry is that, as a medium, the blog does not value well-crafted writing. Except for Mark Steyn and James Lileks, it's hard to pick out even three beautiful writers from the millions of bloggers.
I’m not familiar with either Steyn or Lileks, but as I searched online to learn more about them, I found that they seem to be held in high regard by Little Green Footballs, Instapundit, Hugh Hewitt, and the Jewish World Review, among others. It’s not fair for me to criticize someone’s work sight unseen, but I have to tell you that that discovery sets off all kinds of alarms with me. I’ll try to learn more about them, though.

Again, the fault here lies with the medium: Being a good writer helps a blogger about as much as a good singing voice helps a broadcast anchor.
That’s bullshit! If you can’t write, you can’t communicate. That’s where it all starts. It doesn’t matter if you have a keyboard, modem, and a monitor or a quill, inkwell, and a piece of parchment. That’s a shocking statement from Last, and it really discredits any valid points he wants to make.

Take out these two essentials - news-gathering and prose style - and what are you left with? A medium that values speed, volume, and vehemence. While none of these traits is antithetical to good journalism, none of them is particularly conducive to it, either.

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 more valuable 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 that the New Media is neither able, nor inclined, to emulate.

And the marketplace is slowly coming to understand that.
Yes, but the new media can complement the old (and forgive this corporate word, please) in a “synergistic” way (ouch). There are all kinds of examples of traditional media delivering online content to new readers and providing dimensions to the delivery of that content that cannot be provided through traditional print media. There are strengths and weaknesses on both sides; I, for one, have no hesitation about linking to a well-written or interesting news or opinion piece whether or not it is “old” media online or “new” media from a blog or some special interest source such as Common Cause or Working For Change (or, in the case of Paul Craig Roberts, even Human Events Online).

With columns such as this one which is severely skewed in a way to demean bloggers and the emerging potential of online content, I think “the marketplace” will come to understand the place of blogging in the realm of exchanging ideas, among other things, and the author will truly be the Last one to get the picture (sorry – it was too easy).

Update 4/25: If I hadn't had the technical issues yesterday, I would have discovered this great column by Will Bunch that provides more on this (via Atrios).


Oberon said... can lead don quixote's horse to water.....but you can't make it think.

doomsy said...

I'll ponder that - thanks for checking in.