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.

13 thoughts on “Why We’re Not Parasites

  1. The explosion of politcal blogs on the internets reminds of those heady days, when this nation was young, when there was a healthy plethora of little newspapers. It seemed that anyone who had access to a printing press back then was publishing a newspaper and airing their views.

    I’m also constantly reminded how Thomas Jefferson said, back in the day, that given a choice between a representative government and a free press, he’d chose a free press.

    I do genuinely try to have respect for our national media, but everytime I’m forced to listen to the usual talking heads skewing their reporting, as they did with Pelosi/Syria, it just makes me feel angrily ill.

    And they wonder why public confidence in the press is at all-time lows.

  2. Those clueless mainstream journalists who rail against bloggers never seem to wrap their hands around one basic fact: If these clowns were doing their jobs, there would be no left wing blogosophere to speak of. It would have all the relevance of the Socialist Worker and nobody would read it. It’s only because mainstream journalists are collectively so derelict in their duty to inform the public that the blogosphere is as big as it is, and yes, as respected as it is.

    Their obtuseness about the basic nature of their field, is eclipsed only by their obtuseness about the larger world around them. How is it, that millions of nobodies like myself knew that Bush was lying about Iraq, before the war even began? This is only one, of many glaring derelictions these fools have made from their jaundiced commitment to inform the public.

    I was going to comment on the NYT’s rules for bloggers that was featured here earlier, and this seems like a good as place as any to vent. How dare the NYT or any of the mainstream media tell bloggers how to act? I expect a full apology to the public for the shameful way the NYT and other mainstream outlets have behaved toward the public, before I will allow them to lecture me on anything. The NYT and other media once again have no idea how they created the very situation they’re decrying, through their own negligence and shameful pandering.

    A good beginning, an important strategic goal for the Democrats, should be to change the media ownership rules, to restore the competition that used to be normal for this field. This graph explains all you need to know about why the media in this country is so pathetic, and why the blogosophere is so big.

  3. So Oliver Kamm sees a report on BBC, where (despite editors and professionals) an apparent moron makes grandiose claims about blogging, and somehow that proves that blogging is too democratic?

    What about the editors at BBC Newsnight who were supposed to serve as intermediaries guaranteeing the quality of the debate? Are we to believe that they scoured the earth and Guido Fawkes was the best spokesman they could find? Or was it, just perhaps, that he was the most provocative and radical, and therefore most likely to fill up airtime with contention when put up against a conventional newspaperman?

    Uncritical acceptance, and failure to question the motives of information providers that are, in fact, the source of his complaint. That has nothing to do with the blogosphere. Had I been a news consumer in Britain and unquestioningly accepted the BBC Newsnight point of view, I’d think Guido Fawkes was a representative blogger, but I know better.

    There’s nothing inherent about blogs that ‘narrows the debate.’ Kamm should be concerned with the seemingly increasing willingness of the reader/citizen to let others tell them how to think and what is true, without testing or question, not the particular medium.

  4. It all boils down to the relative weight that the MSM gives its stories; I should think even a champion Upperclass Twit would realize that. Case in point: as I write this, the red-lined “Breaking News” story on the CNN website is that the real father of Anna Nicole’s baby has been identified!

    CNN’s “afterthought” news of the day is that Congress has subpoenaed Gonzo’s documents, and the African-American women athletes that Don Imus insulted have a few words of their own to say. Oh, and BTW, a battle is raging in Baghdad between American/Iraqi forces and insurgents.

    Political bloggers pay attention to real news because the MSM abdicated that task years ago. If Upperclass Twit feels professionally threatened by bloggers, well, that’s just survival of the fittest.

  5. The old power brokers are upset that the internet allows a model much more in line with real democracy. With the internet, issues get quickly and widely addressed in a way that puts citizens directly into the process.

  6. “…when this nation was young, when there was a healthy plethora of little newspapers.”

    May I refer you to Mark Twain’s Classic Memoir: “Journalism in Tennessee”…

  7. If it weren’t for the blogs ( the good ones) I’d probably still be wondering where Saddam hide those WMD’s. I’m not ashamed to admit that through MSM I got played like a fiddle, and through the blogs I got to see how they played me. The blogs are the only line of defense to come against the mechanisms of manipulation that have been set in place to make us sheeple.

    Oliver Kamm calls the blogs an echo chamber..and to some degree it’s true, but there is also a strategy of manipulation called an echo chamber that we learned about through the blogs, and that our government used it so effectively on us in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. “I don’t want the smoking gun to be in the form of a mushroom cloud”

  8. To me, if the press in print or on tv did anything other than parrot the spin line they would be more useful. As it is, they just repeat the lies or half truths of the administration. I keep hearing about how this or that congressperson voted for the war. I remember that vote and it was if diplomatic efforts failed we authorized the president to use force. Who would have thought we had no diplomatic efforts? I think we had one UN speech that was pretty much like a pully with a big club swaggering in and saying it’s our way or the highway and that was it. I remember the teensy artical on Joe Wilson saying nothing was going on and thinking this would be reported on more. Did I hear another word until the end of this year? Nope. The news is more like a gossip these days. I am not interested in Anna Nicole stuff. I am not interested in the hyped up sensationalized stories. What I would like is a fact check whenever I get a talking point from either side and I don’t see any of that. What I would like is someone finding out if a story like Joe Wilson’s is true or not (preferably BEFORE a vote). What I would like is information on all of the republicans being placed in government agencies to censor the information coming out of them. As soon as the newspapers and tv news start addressing those things, I will take more interest in them.

  9. According to Russert “Bloggers all force candidates to accept a position, to play {an adversarial} role.” Russert doesn’t approve because it “puts pressure on those of us in the mainstream media {if we’re not} sufficiently adversarial.”

    I am at a loss to understand what Russert is saying. Is it wrong to force a candidate to accept a position? Is Russert saying that he resents being pressured (by bloggers) to be adversarial? What’s his job-description, television journalist or television cipher?

    Finally, Fred Barnes pronounced, “I can speak to almost anything with a lot of authority.” E. Alterman translates, “I can speak to almost anything without anyone pointing out how full of shit I usually am.” I can think of no better argument in favor of the vast blog-wing conspiracy

  10. Just a coincidence I’m sure that the clueless blogger in question, Paul Staines (aka Guido Fawkes) is a right-wing libertarian. If you want informed bloggers you have to go left; go right and you inevitably run into clueless fonts of non-facts.

  11. Seems like a lot of the media’s received wisdom is of the default assumption variety–the kind of thing where one hears doctor or police officer (now soldier) and thinks male, not female.
    I think the media has generally the assumption that good/smart/correct/worthy attributes all belong to male, white, republican, big business——so it just won’t fit into their heads that someone outside that category could matter. Of course the dems are In Disarray! Republicans are Patriotic! Pelosi is Whiney! Blogs are Upstarts! Secularists are Anti-Religious and Hateful (new meme from NPR on Saturday).
    We had a dog like that–he thought if something looked spherical, it was a ball to chase; he’d bark at the light bulbs in the chandelier, to try to get us to throw them for him. The old fashioned media seems stuck in its categories too.

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