Why We’re Not Parasites

Yesterday Oliver Kamm accused bloggers of being “parasites” and charged that political blogs stifled healthy debate. He did this in the Guardian blog site, Comment Is Free. I’d never heard of Kamm, so I did some checking. He appears to be one of those faux-leftist neocons of the Christopher Hitchens / Martin Peretz ilk. An overeducated twit, in other words. Anyway, he begins,

Political blogging has come of age. At least, that was the idea behind the BBC’s Newsnight screening of a report by a high-profile blogger who writes under the pseudonym Guido Fawkes. His film argued that blogs provided more acute and independent political analysis than traditional journalism, owing to the absence of an editor, proprietor or regulator. Theatrically insisting on being filmed in darkness to maintain his supposed anonymity, “Fawkes” debated his thesis with Michael White of this newspaper.

It was a catastrophic performance, mainly because the blogger required continual correction on points of fact. He thereby illustrated blogging’s central characteristic danger. It is a democratic medium, allowing anyone to participate in political debate without an intermediary, at little or no cost. But it is a direct and not deliberative form of democracy. You need no competence to join in.

Yes, there are plenty of bloggers who write in ignorance of facts. However, these days there are plenty of paid “professionals” working with benefit of editors, proprietors and regulators who are just as ignorant. In fact, some of the worst offenders among the bloggers are getting their misinformation from the pros.

Blogs are providers not of news but of comment. This would be a good thing if blogs extended the range of available opinion in the public sphere. But they do not; paradoxically, they narrow it. This happens because blogs typically do not add to the available stock of commentary: they are purely parasitic on the stories and opinions that traditional media provide.

I actually think there is a glimmer of truth in what Kamm wrote above. I am very much dependent on commercial news media for most of the information I provide in this blog. I get annoyed with bloggers who think that, somehow, “citizen journalists” will someday replace professional news bureaus. Very little of what we bloggers do even faintly resembles what news reporters do, even though technology is effecting enormous changes in how news is gathered and disseminated.

However, if you want to know why we’re not parasites, read Glenn Greenwald. Glenn says that — glory be! — Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post is finally catching on to what the U.S. Attorney scandal is about. Just two weeks ago, Hiatt was still in “nothing to see here; move along” mode. But today — today, mind you — Hiatt published an editorial that suggests maybe some U.S. attorneys were fired because they didn’t bring phony charges against Democrats that might have helped Republicans win elections.

Today, he figures this out.

As Glenn says, there’s nothing in this editorial that hasn’t been well known for weeks, even months. Josh Marshall has been blogging about it since December 2006. I wrote a month ago, after one of the document dumps,

As has been widely noted in the recent past, the pattern suggests that the White House and the Republican Party generally have been using the Justice Department as part of their election campaign process. In other words, Karl and Co. have been turning our criminal justice system into a Republican Party machine.

Thanks mostly to the work of professional reporters — some of whom work for the Washington Post — all of the evidence has been Out There for some time. But media establishment figures like Hiatt would not look at it. Just like they won’t investigate the apparent sandbagging of Nancy Pelosi. It was this same thick-headed obliviousness on the part of major news media that drove a lot of us into blogging. The establishment guys seem to need someone to smack them in the head (figuratively) and holler Look! Pay attention!

In this light, I highly recommend Gary Kamiya’s piece in Salon titled “Iraq: Why the Media Failed.” Here’s a snip:

The media had serious preexisting weaknesses on all three fronts, and when a devastating terrorist attack and a radical, reckless and duplicitous administration came together, the result was a perfect storm.

The psychological category is the most amorphous of the three and the most inexactly named — it could just as easily be termed sociological. By it, I mean the subtle, internalized, often unconscious way that the media conforms and defers to certain sacrosanct values and ideals. Journalists like to think of themselves as autonomous agents who pursue truth without fear or favor. In fact, the media, especially the mass media, adheres to a whole set of sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit codes that govern what it feels it can say. Network television provides the clearest example. From decency codes to subject matter, the networks have always been surrounded by a vast, mostly invisible web of constraints.

Seen in this light, the mass media is a quasi-official institution, an info-nanny, that is held responsible for maintaining a kind of national consensus. Just as our legal system is largely based on what a “reasonable” person would think, so our mass media is charged with presenting not just an accurate view of the world but also an “appropriate” one.

What “appropriate” means in absolute terms is impossible to define. In practice, however, its meaning is quite clear. It’s reflected in a cautious, centrist media that defers to accepted national dogmas and allows itself to shade cautiously into advocacy on issues only when it thinks it has the popular imprimatur to do so.

Smack dab dead on, I say. Kamaya goes on to describe the journalism elites and insiders who “swim happily in the conventional wisdom that flows all around them.” And he says “The blogosphere represents the beginning of a national revolt against the now-discredited media gatekeepers.” Amen to that.

I think a big part of the problem with news media is inherent in mass media and, even more, media monopolies and conglomerates. Before the mass media age most people got their news from (mostly) independently owned newspapers of wildly varying quality. Yes there were newspaper syndicates, but it would have been unusual, I think, for a media corporation to own more than one newspaper in the same media market. And most cities had more than one newspaper.There was true news competition, in other words. The system we have now gives us journalism that is less competitive and more conformist. There is not only less independent coverage of news, but in recent years media corporations have been downsizing their reporting staffs to cut costs.

That said, I don’t know that basic news-gathering is being done any less competently than in the past. I graduated from the University of Missouri School of Journalism in 1973, which means I was there just as Woodward and Bernstein’s Washington Post investigative reports of Watergate were getting attention. This time is looked back on now as some kind of golden age of journalism. But I remember my professors — many of whom were, literally, old newspaper guys with years of reporting experience [*] — sniffing at all the hoopla and saying it just showed that most reporters were asleep at the wheel. Why did only Woodward and Bernstein investigate what was behind the Watergate burglary? Too many of the Washington press corps, the professors said, were lazy sots who just took press releases from the White House and rewrote ’em.

Time and time again, we leftie bloggers look at facts being reported in the mainstream press and see patterns and significance in them the pros don’t see until months later, if ever. Often we have little or no information we didn’t get from the MSM; what differs is how we put the facts together and interpret them.

I think we’re seeing the end of the Mass Media Age, although it’s not clear to me what’s going to replace it. I only hope that soon the Washington media elite and the “pundits” who can’t see what’s right in front of them will seem as antiquated as typewriters and carbon paper.

[*] This post is respectfully dedicated to the memory of Thomas Duffy, a crusty old geezer with DTs who used to scare the stuffing out of me, but who taught me a lot, and who told wonderful stories about reporting on the Chicago mob in the 1930s.

Shocked Jocks

As I remember it, the “shock jock” phenomenon started ca. 1980, about the same time the Reagan Administration started. Actually shock jocks had been around for awhile, but it was about that time mainstream pop culture took notice of them, and they became the rage. (Coincidence? I wonder.) Radio stations all over the nation hired their own pubescent pottymouths to attract attention and listeners. I never found any of them to be the least bit amusing, so I tuned out.

Apparently it’s a Big Bleeping Deal that Don Imus was suspended for two weeks. I wouldn’t miss him if he disappeared entirely, but that’s me. Never once having listened to Imus for more than five minutes at a stretch — and that maybe twice a year — I have absolutely no idea why he’s popular. Nor can I imagine on what planet it is funny to call the Rutgers women’s basketball team “nappy headed ho’s.”

Sometimes there can be honest disagreements about what constitutes racism, but I don’t see room for disagreement on this. Nor was calling Gwen Ifil the “cleaning lady” anything but racism. Sometimes offensive speech is defensible, but in this case, it isn’t. And for the life of me I can’t comprehend how anyone could defend it. Yet they do.

On an almost related note — in the early 1980s (possibly longer) there was a morning radio host on WLW am radio in Cincinnati who was genuinely funny without ever being vulgar or mean. I still think about him sometimes and chuckle, even though I haven’t listened to his program since 1983. His shtick was receiving phone calls from a cast of demented recurring characters (played by himself). Is there anyone reading this who knows who I’m talking about and can remember his name? I’m drawing a blank.

Sandbagging Pelosi Update

There’s a must-see video at Crooks and Liars in which former ambassador Richard Holbrooke slammed guest-host David Gregory for peddling unfounded GOP talking points about Speaker Pelosi’s trip to Syria. And Think Progress has a video in which Rep. Nick Rahall (D-WV) in which he confirms that Pelosi told Bush of the trip to Syria a day before they left, and Bush did not object.

Update: See also Scott Lehigh in today’s Boston Globe.

Update2: See Dan Radmacher of The Roanoke Times:

Some reporters — especially those covering the nation’s capital — are egotistical, lazy, complacent and addicted to their access to those in power, however little they use that access to actually benefit the public.

Many reporters also believe they’ve done their job if they simply quote both sides of an issue — as if most issues only have two sides — with no further effort to get at the truth of the matter.

A good friend of mine, one of the best reporters I’ve ever known, calls that “bracketing the truth.” It’s depressingly common.

For instance, President Bush recently came out with some harsh criticisms of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi because of her trip to Syria to speak with President Bashir Assad.

“Photo opportunities and/or meetings with President Assad lead the Assad government to believe they’re part of the mainstream of the international community when, in fact, they’re a state sponsor of terror,” Bush said, and the press dutifully reported.

Most then dutifully reported Pelosi’s responses. Her press secretary said, “The Iraq Study Group recommended a diplomatic effort that should include ‘every country that has an interest in avoiding a chaotic Iraq.’ This effort should certainly include Syria.”

Very few reports mentioned that at the same time Bush was complaining about Pelosi’s trip, a delegation of Republican members of Congress, including Virginia’s Rep. Frank Wolf, were in Damascus meeting with Assad. Bush not only didn’t criticize Republicans for their trip, an aide to one of the congressmen suggested the White House helped arrange the visit.

If not for bloggers like Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo, that blatant hypocrisy would never have been exposed. It still went unmentioned far too often in newspaper and radio reports….

…The coverage of the new Democratic Congress is just as rife with lazy reporting that accepts far too many political proclamations at face value.

Along these lines, there’s an outstanding article in Salon by Gary Kamiy called “Iraq: Why the Media Failed.”