Yes, Virginia, Bloggers Are Not Journalists, Usually

Paul Mulshine has pissed off a lot of rightie bloggers with “All I Wanted for Christmas Was a Newspaper: Bloggers are no replacement for real journalists.” After outlining the economic problems of newspaper journalism, he says,

The problem is that printing a hard copy of a publication packed with solid, interesting reporting isn’t a guarantee of economic success in the age of instant news. Blogger Glenn Reynolds of “Instapundit” fame seems to be pleased at this. In his book, “An Army of Davids,” Mr. Reynolds heralds an era in which “[m]illions of Americans who were in awe of the punditocracy now realize that anyone can do this stuff.”

No, they can’t. Millions of American can’t even pronounce “pundit,” or spell it for that matter. On the Internet and on the other form of “alternative media,” talk radio, a disliked pundit has roughly a 50-50 chance of being derided as a “pundint,” if my eyes and ears are any indication.

The thing is, there’s reporting, and there’s commentary, and neither Reynolds nor Mulshine seem to be able to distinguish the two. This in itself is a sad commentary on the state of reporting. Yeah, anybody can offer opinions, but not everybody can be a news reporter.

The conceit on the Right Blogosphere — I really haven’t seen as much of this nonsense on the Left — is that an army of “Davids,” or little-guy bloggers, could replace journalism. If by “journalism” one means “reporting,” I say, not likely. Reporting for the most part is the daily slog of going forth to cultivate and talk to sources, interview insiders, assume the sources and insiders are all lying and talk to other sources and other insiders, check police blotters, chase ambulances, and otherwise dig through a lot of boring documentation so that you are as certain as you can be that what you say is true before the copy deadline, because your highest mission is to be accurate. That’s what reporters do.

There are bloggers who have done real reporting. I am thinking of Marcy Wheeler and her work on the White House sandbagging of Valerie Plame. Several bloggers sat through Patrick Fitzgerald’s prosecution of Scooter Libby and gave us first-hand reporting, with context. That was first rate. That also was not the norm. The norm is that most of us are doing commentary, not reporting. We are offering opinions, not news stories. And I do not think an army of amateur partisans working in their spare time can replace full-time, professional journalists at gathering news.

“When enough bloggers take the leap, and start reporting on the statehouse, city council, courts, etc. firsthand, full-time, then the Big Media will take notice and the avalanche will begin,” Mr. Reynolds quotes another blogger as saying

And if these bloggers are not working for someone, exactly how are they going to make a living? And if by chance these same individuals get good at newsgathering, how would they be any different from the people doing newsgathering now?

A reporter learns to be a good reporter, or not, by working for a real hard-ass city desk editor who questions everything he writes, makes him check and re-check his sources, and hands him his ass on a plate when his bylined story gets the facts wrong. I had that experience many years ago and decided I was too emotionally fragile to be a newspaper reporter (although I think maybe I could handle it now). I swear I can pick out reporters who have been properly initiated into the tribe and those who have not. Someone working independently of editors is unlikely to be properly humbled, which is the first step of learning the craft.

I know what good reporters do and I have respect for it. I also don’t do it. Neither does Glenn Reynolds. I can’t think of anyone on the Right Blogosphere who does. (Little Lulu’s “investigations” are harassment, not reporting.) On the Left, beside the above-mentioned Marcy Wheeler and the Libby Trial crew, there are sites like Talking Points Memo taking on paid staff to do news reporting, so sometimes the lines blur.

But most blogging is commentary, and commentary is not reporting. Good reporting does require some analysis, as Mr. Mulshine says. A good reporter has solid background knowledge of what he is reporting combined with an ability to zero in on what the news consumer needs to know to understand the story. Yes, there are a lot of bad reporters who don’t do that.

However, Mr. Mulshine loses it when he says “the type of person who is going to offer great insight into complex issues” is unlikely to be found on the Web. When Glenn Greenwald Josh Marshall are writing for the Web and Jonah Goldberg is writing for the Los Angeles Times, newspapers have lost the right to be proud.

8 thoughts on “Yes, Virginia, Bloggers Are Not Journalists, Usually

  1. maha,
    Traditional newspapers are dying. Blog’s are rising.
    The MSM lines are blurred, if not totally crossed…
    This is a new day. Since the day that Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Bible, and gave rise to small-presses that fueled revolutions, we are facing a restructuring.
    Radio and TV changed the publishing world. Book publisher’s and newspaper’s survived all of that. But, like the small presses that helped accelarate our revolution, the internet is changing everything. Those industries may die off, or be radically changed – where’s their ‘Big Three’ Buy-out?
    When every citizen can be a reprorter and a commentator, it changes the dynamics. We, the People, will have to work harder to seperate the wheat form the chaff.
    And, I don’t thing that’s a bad thing. It’ll requires work, and intellegence.
    And, is that a bad thing?

  2. Oooops! – ‘”think” (in the 2nd to last paragraph)!

    Can we get a ‘Preview?”
    I love you deeply, but I’ve been asking for this for at least 3 year’s, maybe four. I’d pay for it, but I’m unemployed…

  3. I don’t know how the business model is going to work, but I do know that good newsgathering and news reporting is a skill that requires training and experience to develop. That doesn’t change because the medium for delivering the reporting has changed.

  4. I’m working on improvements. The blog was just upgraded to the most recent version of WordPress, which is why the blogroll is messed up. I think I have to install an upgraded theme to make any more changes, which means a complete visual rework of the site, and I’m not sure when I’m going to get to that.

  5. (Jonah Goldberg – who ‘replaced’ the clearer thinker Robert Scheer at the LATimes – is a fascinating writer. He begins his piece of the day with a premise which he supports and by the end of his article he has managed to prove himself wrong.)

    Too many today who pose as reporters don’t speak truth to power rather they transmit lies to the powerless, which if that just made what they reported innocuous would simply make their copy useless. However, the lies that they transmit become the truth (in print seems to connote holy writ) and the results which ensue are painfully evident.

  6. When Goldberg replace Scheer at LATimes I started subscribing to NYTimes. At first I thought Goldberg was comedy but quickly realized that he maintained at least some pretense of seriousness. LATimes seems to have lost their marbles because Goldbert is not even close to being good, lucid, rational or informed. However, I continue to subscribe because of local and regional news.

    This blog post lays out blogging/reporting differences that anyone but Rip Van Winkle would appreciate. This speaks tons about the managment of organizations that would publish articles like the one cited in this post. Aging management or stodgy conservative management has found itself on the periphery of modern culture and have proven that they are unable to discern mainstream opinion from ignorance and are speaking to an ever-dwindling readership, blissfully unaware of the competition.

    I hope they get more rope with which they will assuredly put to the good task of hanging themselves. This entire topic is all-at-once funny and sad.

  7. I think the only advantage the Internet / Web medium offers to genuine news reporting is that, compared to printing and delivering actual newspapers, it represents a much less expensive means of distributing the information that reporters discover and write down. Although from the reader’s point of view, that’s not so because they have to own a computer or have access to one, and as common as those situations are, they’re nowhere near as ubiquitous as stores selling newspapers. I guess it will soon be analogous to television ownership / viewership.

    I’m curious to see where it all goes, because bedam if I have any idea. One thing that might happen is for the Web to break the ancient mystique surrounding the written word – I think people still have a reverence for things in print (i.e., expressed in letters, even if the idea of “print” is strained by the Web medium) that made a lot more sense when written things were rare and, of necessity, more carefully thought out. Of course, another possibility is that the literacy rate drops sharply and that’s all moot.

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