Old Patriot's Pen

Personal pontifications of an old geezer born 200 years too late.

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Location: Colorado Springs, Colorado, United States

I've been everywhere That was the title of a hit country-and-western song from the late 1950's, originally sung by Hank Snow, and made famous by Johnny Cash. I resemble that! My 26-year career in the Air Force took me to more than sixty nations on five continents - sometimes only for a few minutes, other times for as long as four years at a time. In all that travel, I also managed to find the perfect partner, help rear three children, earn more than 200 hours of college credit, write more than 3000 reports, papers, documents, pamphlets, and even a handful of novels, take about 10,000 photographs, and met a huge crowd of interesting people. I use this weblog and my personal website here to document my life, and discuss my views on subjects I find interesting.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Journalism's fear of New Media - an Evaluation

This is going to be long. Bear with me - there's a lot to cover. The original article was too important to leave any of it out, but there are major portions of it - and the article it's based upon, that I disagree with. I've tried to separate my comments by parallel lines consisting of dashes (--------//--------), including Jay Rosen's comments in blue, and others' comments in other colors. Chris Satullo's comments have been set apart, as have some of the words of others. I've tried to color-code the words of others than Chris Satullo to prevent confusion.

This is not a Fisking - this is an informed discussion of some very important - perhaps critical points - that need to be brought into the open and discussed. Several people - the author of the primary piece, Mr. Satullo, and some of the secondary commenters - have made good points. This is a discussion that MUST be carried forward, both within the blogsphere and within "old media". The future, our freedoms, our very lives, may depend upon the outcome of this discussion.

Based on the article:
Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes in PressThink, by Jay Rosen, Oct 4, 2004.
The following is the first paragraph of Jay Rosen's biography on the NYU web:
"Jay Rosen is a press critic and writer whose primary focus is the media's role in a democracy. A member of the faculty since 1986, he is the current chair, and teaches courses in media criticism, cultural journalism, press ethics and the journalistic tradition, among other subjects."
Here's what he wrote:
"On September 26, in 668 precision words, Chris Satullo, editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, significantly advanced a debate that Nick Coleman, Dan Rather, Alex Jones and others have trivialized by dumping on the bloggers from a "higher" position. Satullo abandons that, in favor of widening the circle. He says journalists should pay serious attention to bloggers. And he has a warning: Orwellians in the mist."

"A pizza-stained paper plate sat between Moulitsas and Atrios. Together, they have more readers than The Philadelphia Inquirer. -- Matthew Klam, New York Times Magazine, Sep. 26."

"When journalists go after bloggers, op-ed style, they typically have one thing to say: these bloggers, they're not real journalists. And they don't have to meet our standards, so don't trust them."
Let's take a break right here. We need to understand a few definitions, many of which have been stretched so out of shape they are hardly recognized (definitions from Funk & Wagnalls Standard College Dictionary. This version is the one that was issued to me as a new cadet at the Air Force Academy in 1964.

journal: 1. a diary or record of daily occurrences; especially a ship's log or logbook. 2. A newspaper, especially one published daily. 3. Any periodical or magazine: a learned journal. 4. An official record of teh daily proceedings of a legislature or other deliberative body.

Journalism: The occupation, practice, and academic field concerned with writing, editing, and publishing newspapers and other periodicals.

Journalist: One whose occupation is journalism.
Another definition, from a different dictionary, is: One who keeps or maintains a journal, or who makes entries into a journal or log.

Profession: 1. An occupation that properly involves a liberal, scientific, or artistic education or equivalent, and usually mental rather than manual labor; especially, one of the three learned professions (emphasis from dictionary), law, medicine, or theology. 2. The collective body of those following such occupations. 3. The art of professing or declaring; declaration; avowal: professions of good will. 4. That which is avowed or professed; a declaration.

Professional: 1. Connected with, preparing for, engaged in, appropriate to, or conforming to a profession: professional courtesy; a professional soldier; a professional job. 2. Of or pertaining to an occupation pursued for gain: a professional basebal player.
(alternate): 1. One who pursues as a business some vocation or occupation. 2. One who engages for money to compete in sports; an athlete without amateur standing. 3. One skilled in a profession, craft, or art.

This gives us several things to consider. The terms "jornal", "journalism", and "journalist" can apply to a wide variety of different objects, activities, and individuals, each equally, and yet quite differently from one another. The term "profession" and "professional", too, can be applied in many different ways, to many different occupations and types of individuals. A large portion of the animosity between those in the newspaper business and bloggers appears to be caused by portions of each group latching upon a limited definition of "hot button" words, to the exclusion of all else.
"Two days ago I wrote about an exceptionally pure case in point: Nick Coleman's Sep. 29 column in the Star-Tribune. (See PressThink, Nick Coleman's Classic Hit.) It's too bad he veered from it to "bloggers are scum," for he was on to something serious that morning."

"Coleman--a metro columnist in the Twin Cities who has worked for both local dailies: the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and the Star-Tribune--saw a "war against the media" being fought out today. "A lot of it, we deserve," he added. "The traditional media have faltered badly, from the run-up to Iraq to the Rather-CBS fiasco over forged memos." He said he was worried about what was going to happen now."

""We are rattled, and in danger of losing our way.""

"Nick Coleman had this sense that the bloggers were involved in the rattling, and the danger. But it was confusing to him. How had professional journalists allowed themselves to be attacked by these information vermin, the bloggers? It was unbelievable that such lowlifes could be credited with a story that was dragging the mighty CBS down."
What most people miss - or refuse to accept - about blogging is that it's a continuous-process evaluation of what is important to the life of the blogger. Those bloggers with similar interests share information, reinforcing common perspectives, evaluating conflicts (of information, style, or interpretation), and establishing consensus. In many ways, they conform to the same basic process used in the intelligence field: collection, evaluation, interpretation, integration, and dissemination. Data is collected from just about anywhere and everywhere, either as raw data, a report, or as someone else's opinion; the individual blogger judges the reliability of the source, the believability of the data, and how well it conforms to what's already known; the individual evaluates the information for content, context, and meaning; the information is integrated with other information to see how well it fits, and what, if anything, it adds to the current knowledge base; and the information, along with explanatory comment, is posted. Most of this is done subliminally by the average blogger, and the success of the individual varies greatly across the spectrum. So is the blogger's success or failure with his fellow webmates: those who have a higher success rate with such evaluations are elevated among their peers, those who usually fail gravitate to the bottom.

This behavior, by the way, is not limited to any one field: blogs score huge successes or dismal failures in virtually every field of human endeavor and interest. The process by which the individual blog article reaches publication, however, is essentially the same. Those who have training, experience, or natural talent in the process mentioned above tend to do better than those that don't, but the process itself is essentially the same. It's a trait that can be learned, and there are probably many ways to learn, if one is interested.

All of this brings us back to journalism and the "professional journalist". Quite a number of journalists, at all levels, either possess or don't possess the innate talent and training to follow the path above, and their writings reflect it. Those that consistently skip one or more steps publish information that is frequently flawed and open to rebuttal. The Internet has both speeded up the rebuttal cycle and increased the audience available to evaluate individual works. Those journalists who violate the information principles listed above find themselves and their work the object of intense scrutiny. Those that let other considerations, including personal political considerations to override the basic fundamentals of information evaluation leave themselves open for not only intense scrutiny, but rebuttal and ridicule.
"And if CBS goes down who is going to scrutinize power? Coleman wanted to know. (It's a good question, too.) A banker, a lawyer, writing a blog in his spare time? ""That's the job of journalism,"" he wrote. ""To scrutinize the actions of those in power. If you think bankers will do it, your brain is blog mush.""
Actually, from what I've read of the writings of the Founding Fathers, it's the role of everyone to scrutinize the actions of those in power. It's the role of journalism to publicize deviations from what is considered acceptable behavior. There's a big difference between those two activities.
"But Coleman let his hostility--"most bloggers are not fit to carry a reporter's notebook"--get in the way of his analysis, and so his point about the war and being rattled was never carried through. Perhaps feeling spat upon by particular bloggers, he decided to spit on the bloggers as a group."
I think there's a big difference between bloggers, and I think there's a big difference between reporters. Jayson Blair shouldn't be a roll model for either party. The range of abilities for individuals is very broad, regardless of what they do or how they do it. There are many, many fine general practitioners in the medical field, but if I required neurosurgery, I'd look for someone specializing in that field, and considered among the best in the profession rather than someone not so well thought of. Journalists are evaluated based on their writing; bloggers should be evaluated the same way.
"But this won't help anyone understand the ""war against the media."" In more vivid language, Tom Brokaw talked about the war at a New Yorker event this weekend. (All three anchormen spoke there, making it newsworthy.) ""What I think is highly inappropriate is what's going on across the Internet, a kind of political jihad against Dan Rather and CBS News that is quite outrageous," Brokaw said. (See this and this.)""
THERE IS NO 'WAR AGAINST THE MEDIA'!. That comment is a stupid little trick that hides what's really going on - a war against deception. "Old Media" has lied, misled, and mis-reported far too much over the past 50 years that the American public had found out about, and they're angry. They are intelligent people who brindle at being lied to and against attempts to manipulate their feelings with warped and incomplete reporting. This is one lesson the journalism profession MUST learn: the American people are smarter than you give them credit for, and they get very, very angry at being manipulated. Until this type of behavior ends, "Old Media" will be in the gunsites of everyone who can string two words together. In the past, such rebuttals were limited to the "Letters to the Editor" sections. Today, there are many more avenues open to the public. Deceptive practices will be discovered sooner, the type of deception will be identified, and those engaged in the deception will be evicerated - ranging from polite tones to shrill rhetoric - immediately. What bloggers are saying, loud and clear, is "Stop lying to us!".
"If the worries of Tom Brokaw won't, the writings of Hugh Hewitt will help you understand this war. Read him consistently, you begin to get it. He gave a public warning to Jim Lehrer before last week's presidential debate: You saw what happened to CBS, Mr. Lehrer. Be smart, and don't tilt the debate for Kerry, as we know you want to... (Hugh Hewitt, On Notice: "Jim Lehrer and the rest of the old media should know that they have to play it straight tonight." Weekly Standard, Sep. 30).

Jim Lehrer takes his seat as debate moderator with the PBS brand as firmly affixed to his back as CBS is to Dan Rather's. Moderating a presidential debate never carried much of a risk for the mother ship in the past, but in this era of new media, any detectable bias on Lehrer's part will result in a cyber-tsunami headed towards PBS affiliates across the country.

Hewitt (who said he was only arguing for balance, as in "play it straight, PBS") made a prediction:

"If Lehrer goes in the tank for Kerry, expect an enormous blowback--as predictable as the one which followed CBS's foisting of forgeries on the public. Only PBS is much more vulnerable to viewer dismay than the Boss Tweeds at Black Rock."

"Vulnerable" is the key word to Hewitt and company on the cultural and Internet right. They believe they have the mainstream news media on the run, in a weakened state, and "on notice" about liberal bias.
The blogosphere - that vast, uncharted area inhabited by some 42,000 people who read and write online - isn't worried about media bias. What it's worried about is the actions of those in positions of public trust, using that position to mislead, slant, or otherwise manipulate information to aid one position or party above another, and their doing it either knowingly or (less likely) unwittingly. In addition, the blogosphere includes more than 70 million readers, with the vast majority of them in the United States. Even if that readership were split 50/50, that would still be a significant number that could be brought to bear against a journalist that raised the ire of that readership. Dan Rather and CBS are beginning to see the effect of that kind of pressure.
Andrew Sullivan's Sep. 12 column in the Times of London is the best synopsis of the war that Coleman and Brokaw talked about, and that Hewitt also sees happening. ( Media Wars: "The Election's Other Battle.") There's also this backgrounder about the "tension between bloggers and news media" from Staci Kramer in OJR. Both are valuable.
I personally don't have a very high opinion of Andrew Sullivan (I do read him fairly frequently on NRO (the Corner), where I disagree with him far more often than I agree. We live in different worlds, have different interests, and different viewpoints. He does make a few good points in this article (and in others he writes), but they have to be weeded out from a lot of chaff. That's a talent everyone who writes, at any level, needs to develop, whether they're a "journalist" working in "Old Media" or a blogger.
But the best column yet written about that tension came and went recently with almost no notice from bloggers or media critics, though it made Romenesko five days late. In fact, Technorati showed zero references at the time this was posted. For me it is the most consequential piece of its kind, and the ideas in it are too important to let pass without comment. (So when you're done, hit the button and comment.)

On September 26, in 668 words, Chris Satullo, editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, significantly
a debate that Alex Jones, and Nick Coleman, and Dan Rather, and many others have trivialized by dumping on the bloggers from a "higher" position. Satullo abandons this position, in favor of widening the circle. He gives the best argument yet for why journalists should pay serious attention to bloggers and what they have to offer. Then he lets the newcomers, the bloggers, have a hit of realism.

His case begins where I would begin. Before you criticize journalists, you should think about your answer to a thousand dollar question: what are journalists for? (In your mind.) I wrote a book about it. Satullo has thought about it. Roll tape:

For any journalist who understands his real job-- helping the public life of this nation work well...

MAJOR disagreement: the job of journalist is to inform, entertain, or enlighten. That's it. They inform us of what's going on around us ("news"), and what they think about it ("opinion"). They entertain us with stories (true, fiction, or whatever) about things beyond our daily lives. They enlighten us about things happening elsewhere. The sole professional requirement of those in the "news" industry, however, is to inform. That, indeed, will help the public life of this nation work well, but that isn't the reason for the journalist to exist. Knowing that Mt. St. Helens may erupt again soon, that this is a continuation of centuries of activities, and that people within x miles may be in danger is information. It may help the public life in a small area of this nation work well, but for the remainder, it's just information. It's still journalism, and it's still important. Let journalism at all levels keep its eye on the true goal - informing the rest of the people. Let the people decide what to make of the information - that's the role of the "informed citizen" that Benjamin Franklin was talking about. It's ok to supplement bare facts with historically relevant points, it's ok to add supplemental data, and it's even ok to add what others think about what's happening, especially those in positions of trust to protect this nation and its citizen, regardless of level. That's as far as journalism's "help" should go. In fact, stepping beyond that is what gets the blogosphere agitated, and rightly so. Journalism, at no level, should be involved in shaping opinion, promoting action, encouraging decisions, or formulating policy. That is the role of the citizen and elected officials.

I'm going to dispense with imbedded links in the article from this point on. Go back to the top and link to it directly if you want to follow the links. There's just too much here, and too little time.
"Stop right there. The ultimate job of the press, in Satullo's world (and in mine), is a pragmatic one: "helping the public life of this nation work well." This view, we should tell you, has rivals. One of them says the ultimate job of the press is to help no one, advance no agenda. "We're the watchdogs and the truthtellers and we advocate nothing. End of story." I call it the View from Nowhere. Satullo isn't on that side. And this affects what he thinks about the bloggers. Roll tape:"

""For any journalist who understands his real job - helping the public life of this nation work well - the rise of citizen comment on the Internet should be something to celebrate.""

Stop. Check it out, Newsroom Joe. Journalists should be cheering the arrival of the bloggers during this campaign cycle. Why? Because journalism is about the enlargement of public life, and that's what the bloggers are doing. Enlarging the circle.
I agree, and I disagree. What the blogosphere does is add checks and balances to the journalism process, holds journalism accountable for its behavior, and supplements journalism by spreading information farther, faster, and with commentary beyond the bounds currently imposed on most sources. The blogosphere can supplement "professional journalists", can support and even defend them. It can also impose consequences when they stray from the path allotted to them by the people - the final arbiter of all power in our Republic.

The blogosphere is a dynamic expansion of things newspapers have long done to aid democratic dialogue, from letters to the editor to experiments in civic journalism.

The one key that "professional journalists" and "Old Media" cannot tolerate is that the blogosphere cannot be controlled (by them, by anyone); the editorial checks and balances on blog items is controlled based on content, not any other single factor; and that quite often blogs are more popular distributors of news than traditional media. There is legitimate concern that traditional media sources may lose readership: this isn't the result of the blogosphere directly, but the effect of failing to accomplish the primary mission of any traditional media source - distributing information. If they return to that tradition, there will be no loss of revenue, no loss of readership, and no loss of partisanship on the part of their readers. It's the failure to adhere to their primary mission that's costing them now.
Blogging is a new way to engage people in discussion of the news, the very thing you care about and do, Nick Coleman.

Many bloggers are citizens who care about facts and ideas. (Some are narcissistic boors, but let's ignore them.) Good bloggers devour information, making then a smart, skeptical audience.

Journalists, you can stop worrying about bloggers "replacing" the traditional news media. We're grist for their mill, says Satullo, a mill that doesn't run without us. Bloggers consume and extend the shelf life of our reporting, and they scrutinize it at a new level of intensity.

Any journalist who would not welcome that is a fool. Given a choice between a world of nonreaders zoning out with MTV or a posse of tart-tongued digital watchdogs, I say: Up with blogs!

This is a good analysis that could be significantly better, but only by those in the profession of journalism making some significant modifications to their ideas about what their true role is. There's also some gaping holes: journalism professionals need to understand that there are tens of thousands of people in this world that know more about one or two unique subjects than they do. They also need to be willing to ask for, and accept, the help of those individuals, whether they're bloggers, or their regular readers. Finally, the journalism profession needs to expand their thinking to encompass the fact that information is a commodity, and that commodity is only as worthy as its integrity. If people have a choice between a $12 toaster that only works for two months, frequently burns rather than toasts bread, or doesn't toast at all, and a more expensive toaster, maybe costing $20, but that works well consistently and lasts longer, they will eventually buy the higher-priced toaster, because it has better value in the long run. The product has greater integrity of performance. The same is true of journalistic loyalty: people will gravitate to the source of information that provides the best product, even if it costs more, or if it's not quite as convenient. "Old Media" today frequently provides a sloppy, opinionated, biased, and incomplete product. There are sources elsewhere that do a better job.

The buggy-whip industry in the United States died out with the advent of low-priced automobiles. The demand dropped virtually to zero. Print and broadcast journalism aren't yet faced with quite the same threat of obsoleteness. However, if they wish to remain vital, they will have to provide a better product to their customer.
Of course, there are others saying the same thing, but I find "up with blogs!" refreshing in a newspaper editor.

Blogs may display the flaws of youth (naivete, hyperbole, self-indulgence), but I find them refreshing.

As with anything new, it's going to take some time to "shake the bugs out", but blogging is becoming easier and easier. The numbers of individual blogs grows daily. Not every blog is going to be a threat to print or broadcast media. Some will fill niches that "old media" have abandonded due to unprofitability (blogs are cheaper than any form of "old media", especially print media). Not every blogger has learned the five criteria for evaluating and reporting information (neither have all journalists!). Again, blogging should be an integral part of journalism, to supplement, to hold accountable, and to provide a control on excesses, of "Old Media" journalism. It's going to take time for that idea to percolate through the blogosphere. Someone, many someones, need to provide guidance to newcomers on what would be considered "acceptable" behavior - but NOT to impose limits. The blogosphere, like the Internet, functions best unimpeded by outside limits.
Good deal. However, there is a problem. It's this media war. Satullo starts off in a light hearted way:

... many bloggers disdain my type [newspaper editors and columnists] as clueless dinosaurs. The blogosphere is declaring its independence, even as it relies on us fogeys for its daily grist. The sensation is vaguely familiar. I am, after all, the father of two teenagers.

And "blog triumphalism," as we know, has a very adolescent view of life:
A little bit of hubris showing there, but not so much a good blog article couldn't smash it flat in sixty seconds.

The ruling spin on Dan's Big Blunder seems to be: Rather exposed as a biased hack; mainstream media exposed as arrogant, obsolete gatekeepers; the blogosphere rules!

Not so fast, interpreters...
There are those that have declared war against "Old Media". They are wrong, whoever they are. There are others who have declared war on deception - a totally different thing. The members of both groups - Old Media and the blogosphere - MUST make the distinction, and integrate it into their thinking at the basest level. The blogosphere doesn't work in a vacuum. Neither does Old Media. The two groups need each other - their optimum association is symbiotic, rather than parisitic or antagonistic. This needs to be taught in J-school, it needs to be reinforced in the blogosphere, and it needs to be repeated time and time again to the readership of both. At the same time, both groups need to maintain their own independence to pursue what is most important to individual units, within the framework of good journalistic practices.

Rather's meltdown could be a clarifying moment for journalism.

Which is a story line no main line reporter has pursued since the Rather matter blew up Sep. 20: the blown opportunity story. CBS could have seized the initiative during the crisis and transformed itself, right there in the eye of the storm, into an Internet-era news division, pro-active in building credibility, willing to be more open, accountable and interactive. By taking advantage of the crisis, treating it as a moment to break with orthodoxy and become more transparent, CBS leadership might have rescued a very bad situaton, and made of it a "clarifying moment." (Jeff Jarvis made this point on Sep. 19th.) It didn't happen. Now Satullo:

But the event is being hijacked by propagandists of Orwellian agenda. Their cover story: We're challenging the bloated corporations that own the biased mainstream media. This strikes a chord with the hype-weary youth who've made the Internet their own.

I'm 58 years old, and I'm pretty tired of the hype, too. The Internet is becoming the home of every class of individual, from the oldest to the young, from multi-billionaires to those with only modest incomes (Internet access at schools and libraries help), from every portion of the political, social, cultural and intellectual climate. Too much of what passes as "journalism" today is hype, and nothing more. The amount of information in a typical 2000-word article can be squeezed down into a couple of small paragraphs - the rest is padding, hype, bias, disingenuity, spin and distortion. The average American has learned to see it for what it is. They're getting more and more disgusted with it as it gets more and more blatant. Much of what is alluded to as "Orwellian agenda" is far more likely to be hypocritical self-denial and ingrained hubris.
This brings him to the war, and the war cry of bias:

But the real goal of the propagandists - with their shouts of Bias! Arrogance! Monopoly! - is to destroy journalism. Why? Because journalism is the sworn enemy of propaganda.

I believe Satullo is drawing a distinction between those who are frustrated and angry with the traditional news media, and want answers, as well as changes, which is one group of critics--many of them pro-Bush or red staters, some of whom blog--and another group, posing as critics of bias, who see an oppportunity to discredit CBS News in the wider public sphere.

They want to achieve an historic victory in a very long war between conservatives and the likes of CBS, going back to 1969 and Spiro Agnew, or even further to 1964, when Barry Goldwater met the hostility of Northeastern journalists. (For this background go here.) They want to inflict as much damage as possible on an institution they treat as hostile to Republican Truth, and to the message of the cultural right.

Bias is their lever only because CBS and other mainstream news organizations claim to be un-biased. (And Newsday's Marvin Kitman said Sunday that's a fantasy in TV news.) If CBS identified itself as liberal news, made by progressives for all Americans, the war against Rather and crew would go on, but not on the grounds of bias. It would switch to the defeat of "CBS liberalism" itself. Bloggers, says Satullo, be wary of the Orwellians.

"Never attribute to cleaverness what can be better credited to stupidity". There are a few people that want to destroy mainstream journalism. They are a very small minority, and their frothing gives them away to anyone with a modicum of intelligence. I used to spend hours reading Worldnet Daily News. Some of what I read seemed rather far-fetched. As I read more, I began to see the deeply imbedded biases of many of the writers and columnists of this group, and started looking for more honest reporting. It's difficult to find any news organization, or any writer, that doesn't slant news to match their internal biases. That includes not only the dozen or so places I go for news, but the more than 50 blogs I read when I can find the time. In the end, I found four or five different groups that I could read, sift out the facts from the bias, and form a concensus of what was closest to the truth.

I also believe all this "Orwellianism" is a straw man to be used to bash bloggers that say things big media find distasteful.

They've pressed their attack against journalism for 30 years now, frothing about Bias.

But this does not mean the press is innocent of bias, error, laziness and poor quality control.

And shame on journalists for having given them so much ammunition. We screw up too often. We take too many shortcuts. We lapse in vigilance against our own preconceptions.

To lapse in vigilance against your own preconceptions is to take up residence in built deceptions-- as with spin alley. This happens way too often, Satullo says. The press should value bloggers who can point it out.
This is another bit of hubris and bias rearing its ugly head. I'm a Vietnam War veteran. I remember listening to news on the radio, and watching it on television, and trying my best to match it against the information I was getting as a member on the ground in Vietnam, working in the intelligence community and having access to far more than any news organizations. Bias, thy name is "network news". That includes the Associated Press, UPI, Reuters, and a dozen other "stars" of mainstream media. To use a biblical reference, Matthew 7: "3. And why beholdest thou the mote in thy brother's eye, but considerest not the beam in thine own eye? 4. Or how wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote from thine eye; and behold, a beam is in thine own eye?"

Mainstream Media definitely has a bias, it's becoming more and more blatant, and it does not sit well with a majority of the American public. If that public rebels against that bias and those that exhibit it, it's more in the vein of Thomas Paine or Samuel Adams than in George Orwell. Pretending otherwise could be very dangerous.

But, in the public forum, overuse has drained meaning from the cry of "Bias!" Often, all it denotes is: "What you reported does not conform to my assumptions." Or worse: "What you reported, while true, does not advance my agenda."

It's the "or worse" case that made Tom Brokaw speak of a "political jihad" against Rather and CBS. But Brokaw, like Rather, is still lumping Internet, blogger, and jihad together and reacting with outrage at the enemy's tactics. Satullo makes distinctions, so he can warn the citizen bloggers against the jihadis. Howard Kurtz picks up the action:

Although he called Rather's "60 Minutes" story "a big mistake," Brokaw said it had led to an attempt to "demonize" Rather and CBS through "demagoguery."

ABC's Peter Jennings disagreed, crediting bloggers for first questioning whether the Guard documents were fake and adding: "I don't think you can just say this is a universal 'let's get CBS.'

Their disagreement matters, and this shows why Kurtz is a good reporter. Most amazing of all are the distinctions Satullo drew between "journalism" and Big Media. How often do you hear sentiments like this?

Don't tell my bosses I said this, but it really doesn't matter a whit to the republic whether Knight Ridder, the corporation that owns this newspaper, thrives or dies. As loyal as I am to newspapers, I confess it's not even essential that the ink-on-paper medium survives.

The only thing that matters is for journalism--the practice--to go on, to survive. What is journalism? Satullo does not shy away. He has a definition ready for you.

By journalism, I don't mean getting paid $4 million a year to have nice hair and interview Kelsey Grammer. I mean the principled, difficult search for the most thorough, accurate, fair-minded account of current matters that flawed human beings can attain.

The media firms that employ journalists have no great commitment to that search. (In this a lot of media critics are right.) But then...

Media conglomerates are not a synonym for journalism. They employ some journalists, and many who only pretend to be. They enable the craft, but also inhibit and cheapen it.

This is one reason why journalists should take an interest in blogging. Independent journalism may have to learn how to live outside Big Media, which is not exactly journalism-friendly, as Satullo says. Bloggers are doing that now. Maybe we can learn from them. But bloggers can learn from us old media types too. It doesn't matter where it comes from, CBS, or or the Command Post.

What matters is that journalism survive, that the craft of speaking truth to power with factual care not be snuffed out.

Which puts it beautifully.

Because power prefers lies. Without journalism, lies flourish and liars rule.

Satullo is smart enough to know that those words do not have credibility for all. I found this part poignant.

I know, I know: What an old-media blowhard! But young bloggers, as you shove my type aside and stride to the glorious future, take care that the calendar doesn't one day turn to 1984. Be wary of the Orwellians.

My one complaint about Chris Satullo's column is that he didn't name any "Orwellians." (I criticized Coleman for that too.) Brokaw did name one participant in the jihad, as Kurtz reported:

He said that Brent Bozell, who runs the conservative Media Research Center in Alexandria, has been "doing as much damage as he can, and I choose that word carefully, to the credibility of the news divisions." Brokaw noted the growing criticism from left-wing bloggers and expressed skepticism toward Internet detractors: "When it comes to fraudulence, forgeries and claims that cannot be supported, that's where you see an enormous harm being done to the country." (My links.)

Satullo's column is challenging to bloggers but open to their contributions. It's neither condescending nor sentimental about the blogging trend. In my view his Sep. 26th piece ought to be linked to and read. It ought to be argued about. We ought to know who agrees and who doesn't with:

  • The real job of journalism is to help make the public lfe of the nation work well.
  • For journalists, the rise of citizen comment on the Internet should be something to celebrate and learn from.
  • The bias discourse has descended into meaninglessness, which doesn't meant the press isn't trapped by its own preconceptions.
  • The survival of Big Media is not critical, the survival of journalism is. There's a big difference between those two.
  • Bloggers "who care about facts and ideas," and there are many of those, should be wary of the Orwellians on their own side, who are themselves engaged in propaganda-- the charge they are most likely to hurl at others.

Satullo's final point is that journalism isn't summed up in Dan Rather, and "MSM on the run" is a sloppy analysis:

Rather's mistake was sad, but no watershed. This aging anchor is no more the embodiment of journalism than Paris Hilton is a typical farm girl. Mainstream media is a term so loose as to disqualify any assertions that follow it.

He ends by keeping the lines of communication open:

Let's, by all means, discuss how journalism falls short. Let's explore how it can flourish in media new and old. But let's see the screaming about media bias for what it is: at best sloppy thinking, at worst Orwellian poison.

Again, I disagree. The scream about media bias is the scream of frustration as "journalists" manipulate, mangle, mis-interpret, and - as in the case of Dan Rather and CBS - outright lie to promote an agenda. The agenda may be as mild as "watch us instead of those other jerks" to an attempt to undermine the very foundations of our government. Bias exists. It MUST be called, every time it appears, if we are to continue to live as free people in a very dangerous world.
I will be interested to hear what others think. I think Satullo just raised the bar, and hiked the stakes, but almost no one noticed. Roll tape...
Chris Satullo has finally opened the debate for what it is: an assessment of journalism, how it's supposed to work, and how well it's been doing its job. If I were grading this essay, I'd give it a C-. That's not all that bad, since most journalists aren't even willing to discuss the matter, and the few that have has done well enough to get above an F yet.


Blogger dirty dingus said...

Coincidentally I wrote an essay yesterday looking at Blogging as a disruptive technology. Frankly IMHO blogging is bound to displace quite a large swathe of traditional journalism because the traditional journalism will not be able to compete on price or quality.

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1:11 AM  
Blogger Tim Worstall said...

I'm going to write at greater length about this later, perhaps at my blog, maybe at Techcentralstation. Some thoughts for now:
1) Journalism is not a profession. It is a trade. The very existence of post-grad J-school is absurd.
2) "Journalism" does not have a duty or right to "speak truth to power" or any other such vapid nonsense. We live, for better or worse, in a capitalist society. The duty of a company is to make profits for its owners. Nothing else. Just as "corporate social responsibility" is a diversion from what corporations are for, so is a media firm's insistence on anything other than profit. Something which, as we know, they get by pleasing their customers.
Given the above two all of the debate strikes me as self-absorbed navel gazing.
There are a few economic points I want to make as well.
Hayek. His point that information is distributed in society. He goes on to point out that decision making should therefore also be distributed.But taking his information point, this means that the 3 million or so bloggers know more on any subject ( not just some, but any and all subjects) than the 5,000 people who work for a media outlet. Eugene Volokh knows more constitutional law than the entire NYT and CBS put together. I am, in my tiny field, the world expert. Kim du T knows more about guns than the entire WaPo. Bloggers will always be more expert simply because of the distributed nature of information.
There is a further economic thought, about how the US media got to be the way it is. It depends, in large part, upon syndication. This is wildly different from other countries. Networks have affiliates, newspapers but their op-eds from centralised sources. Thus, despite the seeming masses of media outlets in the US there aren't really that many individual voices. There have been technical reasons for this. With TV it's been limitations on the power of broadcasts. Over the past couple of decades this has changed in the face of satellite and cable. The three main networks are therefore losing market share and will continue to do so, increasing the diversity of voices. This is well known, yet many do not seem to realise that this is going to happen to newspapers as well. Distance has meant that US papers tend to be local or regional monopolies. They all buy stories and op eds from the same syndication companies. There is no point in buying a San Diego paper and an LA paper to get a diversity of opinion. There is no diversity there to be had.
These local monopolies exist only as part of a particular stage of technological progress. Part of it is distribution, no one in the past knowing how to distribute 50,000 copies of the LAT in New York every morning. Satellite printing is changing that, a little. The net is of course changing it radically. But look at the finances of a paper. News stand prices (and subscription) cover ditribution costs themselves, not much more, perhaps some of the cost or printing and newsprint itself. General advertising covers some of the other costs. But the 800 lb gorilla is the classifieds. These are at the heart of the profitable local monopolies. It's just the same as e-bay; when you are the most efficient marketplace then you get all the business. Who would look for an apartment in NY without looking at the Time property section (or the Village Voice maybe)? It is precisely this part of the paper that provides local monopoly power. And, I would submit, leads to the syndication process and the lack of diversity in voices and viewpoints.
OK, what's going to happen in the near future? We're already seeing the dead tree versions of the paper migrating to the net. We're also seeing things like Craig's List eat into the classifieds.I would argue that at some point one of these online markets is going to eat the newspaper's lunch. The basic model for American newspapers will then be broken.
This does not mean that they will all die, of course. there will still be a need for editors, journos and the rest. The function will still be there,just the form will change. What I think, hope, will happen is that a migration to something more like the UK model will happen. Syndication is almost unknown. National papers (there are 14 that turn up in a Cabinet Minister's press pack each day) compete heavily on their political and cultural stance. None runs more than a modicum of classifieds. In effect, the UK has national competition amongst different view points in the press. The US currently has a series of local monopolies. Economic pressures are going to move the US closer to the UK model.
As always, competition will do more for consumers than anything else. Perhaps, even ,provide us with an interesting debate rather than oracular pronouncements from the "profession" of journalists.
In short, the US press has been monopolistic as a result of technolgical limitations. This has led to a single world view predominating. Current changes in tech mean that these limitations are disappearing, leaving competition by ideas as the only method left. We're going to see a great deal more intellectual diversity in papers in the future, it's the only way they'll survive.

1:30 AM  
Blogger ~Jen~ said...

I look at this as a turf war.

The full time journalist see bloggers as stepping on their toes. The so-called "real" journalists want to be the ones breaking the stories and getting the glory.

12:57 PM  
Blogger Old Patriot said...

Dirty - Excellent comment. This is the kind of discussion I think both the blogosphere and print/broadcast media need. We can both work together for the common good, or we can tear each other apart. I never bet for an outnumbered enemy. If "old" media wants to go to war, they will lose - they don't have the flexibility to compete. They CAN join in the fun, work together, and share the glory. That last - sharing the glory - seems to be the biggest stumbling block, as Jen mentions above.

Tim - I agree. In fact, I think that's what I said, just using different words. 8^). Actually I accept that there can be professionals in any field, from brain surgery to carpentry. The difference between a professional and someone else is not a matter of education or training, but of devotion to doing it the best way possible. As a professional warrior, I understand that not everyone wearing a uniform is a professional: there are about six amateurs to each professional, or were when I left. The difference is in the amount of effort put into the field by the individual, not a diploma, employment, ranking, or whatever. Any carpenter can build a functional cabinet, but only a professional can make it both functional and beautiful.

1:57 PM  

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