Mainstream journalism is taking its shots at blogs - some deserved, some way off the mark. We've had CBS executive Jonathan Klein's dismissal of the typical blogger as "a guy sitting in his living room in his "pajamas" and Steven Levy's "ankle-biter" epithet in his Newsweek column. In yesterday's Minneapolis Star-Tribune, columnist Nick Coleman weighs in with this rather unflattering characterization:
Bloggers are hobby hacks, the Internet version of the sad loners who used to listen to police radios in their bachelor apartments and think they were involved in the world.
Bloggers don't know about anything that happened before they sat down to share their every thought with the moon. Like graffiti artists, they tag the public square -- without editors, correction policies or community standards. And so their tripe is often as vicious as it is vacuous.
Coleman also added this colorful metaphor to the discussion:
But one of the shams we're chasing is the supposed threat of the blogs, who are to journalism what ticks are to elephants. Ticks may make the elephants nuts, but that doesn't mean they will replace them. You can't ride a tick.
Them's fighting words! James Lileks, who counts Coleman as a colleague, decides to use the occasion to draw some valuable distinctions between the traditional press and the blogosphere:
Put it this way: there are thousands of news junkies out there doing research and analysis for free. In their spare time. For fun. It would kill us to listen? After all, if the Rathergate tale taught us anything, it’s that ordinary people could blow ten-foot holes in the Good Ship CBS simply by comparing their knowledge to the manifest ignorance of the news division’s producers. Because I’ll tell you this about "ordinary" people: they know stuff. Granted, fonts and typewriters aren’t their beat. Fonts and typewriters are their line of work.
I can understand how people who have invested their lives in honing their credentials as journalists would take umbrage at ordinary citizens trying their hand at it and even using the network effect to move stories that the press ignores. It must be comparable to the feeling lawyers have when they watch a defendant attempt to act as his own attorney, or doctors listening to a hypochondriac patient attempt a self-diagnosis.
But I am struck by just how emotional the reactions are from people like Levy and Coleman, and how little they rely on factual references to make their case; or they react, as Coleman did, to a posting that was intended to be satirical. The main problem the media has with blogs is the same problem they have with talk radio: blogs are openly partisan and opinion-driven, and make no bones about it. Meanwhile, journalists are required to operate with objectivity, an ideal to which they adhere with varying degrees of success. But the point is, journalists all believe they are unbiased; bloggers don't purport to be. This is liberating for bloggers, who can write whatever they damn please.
But for that matter, so do pundits like Paul Krugman, Maureen Dowd, George Will and Robert Novak - not to mention Steven Levy and Nick Coleman. They frequently make assertions based on their reading of events, with more than a little spin. Of course they do, that's the role of the op-ed writer - to push a point of view, to persuade the reader. Bloggers are no different. And it's disingenuous to compare bloggers to reporters when it's clear that they more closely resemble opinion columnists.
Additionally, what distinguishes new media from old media is the robustness of the feedback channel. Bloggers hear constantly via comments and emails from their readers, and are challenged by other bloggers. They are challenged to link to sources for their assertions, and this being the Internet, they had better be able to do so. In turn, the best bloggers are up front about linking to dissenting opinions or updating posts with new facts that contradict their assertions.
By contrast, the MSM can evolve a theme without rigrously backing it up. One such theme runs thus: "the Swift Boat Veterans have been totally discredited". Really? I am aware of one or two cases where their version of events has been challenged and the facts were inconclusive, but I haven't seen any evidence of forged documents or definitively disproven assertions. Beldar, who has been following the minutiae of the Swift Boats story, recently issued a challenge to any member of the media to back the claim that the Swifties have been refuted with actual evidence. As a lawyer, he lays out his facts in painstaking detail (many bloggers come from a legal background).
It would be fair reporting to say that the Swift Boat Veterans have a longstandng animus against John Kerry, and that Kerry partisans view their attacks as below-the-belt. It would also be fair to state that there are conflicting accounts about the events in which many of their arguments are grounded. But that does not refute the claims. And the MSM refuses to press Kerry to sign a form 180, which would release all of his military records and conclusively lay to rest the questions the Swifties are raising. A strange reaction for journalists, who see their role as relentlessly digging to get the facts to the public.
Yet those same responsible, nonpartisan journalists, insist that the forged Bush National Guard documents are "fake but accurate". Bloggers would never be allowed to get away with such self-evidently ridiculous assertions. Why can't media professionals at least hold themselves to the standards of the fleas in pajamas biting the ankles of the elephant?