That Blog Won’t Hunt
My counterparts on the Internet think they’re so clever and so cutting-edge— and they are. But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn a thing or two from the mainstream media.
Over the years, Dan Rather, the subject of Gary Cartwright’s cover story (Dan Rather Retorting), has withstood the criticism of presidents, members of Congress, and fellow journalists. But when CBS aired his 60 Minutes Wednesday report on young George W. Bush’s career in the Texas Air National Guard last September, Rather found himself assailed, and ultimately brought down, by an entirely different group of critics—the bloggers, anonymous commentators on current events with pseudonyms like “Hindrocket” and few, if any, media credentials, except access to the world’s biggest printing press: the Internet. Even while the 60 Minutes report was still being aired, bloggers were already attacking the authenticity of the documents on which it was based. As everybody knows, the bloggers were right and CBS was wrong.
What everybody may not know—and, I confess, what I myself was slow to recognize—is that bloggers think of themselves as far more than just a collection of individual commentators. They see themselves as the vanguard of a media revolution in which more and more of the public will get information not from professional media organizations like the New York Times, CBS, and, yes, TEXAS MONTHLY but instead from ordinary citizens who want their voices and their opinions to be heard but don’t have a prayer of breaking into the MSM, as the bloggers refer to the mainstream media. Blogs are the talk radio of cyberspace: entertaining, provocative, and usually identified with one end or the other of the political spectrum. The main difference between themselves and the mainstream media, the bloggers say, is that they own up to their biases, while the MSM masquerade as objective. Their belief that they own the future is Maoist in its fervor. Here is Hindrocket on powerlineblog.com: “So far, the blogosphere has a far better record of honesty and accuracy than mainstream organs like the New York Times and CBS. This isn’t entirely a matter of personality; it is also a function of the checks and balances of the blogosphere, which are far stronger and more effective than the alleged ‘checks and balances’ of the mainstream media, which, in the absence of political and intellectual diversity, may not operate at all.”
Make no mistake about it: This is war. As a foot soldier in the army of the MSM, unwitting though I may be, I am fascinated by the prospect of my own extinction. It was first foretold by the novelist Michael Crichton. “To my mind, it is likely that what we now understand as the mass media will be gone within ten years,” Crichton wrote in Wired magazine in 1993. “Vanished, without a trace.” The New York Times and the commercial networks, he predicted, would be “the next great American institution to find itself obsolete and outdated, while obstinately refusing to change.” Crichton’s deadline has come and gone, and the Times and the networks live on—but few of us MSM types would gloat about it. The Times had its Jayson Blair scandal, the network newscasts lose viewers with each passing year, and we all know about CBS.
Five years later, Crichton found an ally in Matt Drudge, who broke the story of the Monica Lewinsky scandal on his now infamous Web page. Soon Drudge was speaking to the National Press Club, an event that would have seemed inconceivable a few months earlier. “We have entered an era vibrating with the din of small voices,” he preached. “Every citizen can be a reporter, can take on the powers that be. . . . Now, with a modem, anyone can follow the world and report on the world—no middle man, no Big Brother. And I guess this changes everything.”
Take it from a middleman: It does. I have always believed that the strength of the MSM is precisely what Drudge denounced. TEXAS MONTHLY is full of editors, copy editors, fact checkers, even a libel lawyer. They—we—I—act as filters. We filter out writing that doesn’t meet our standards. We filter out stories that we think readers won’t find interesting. We filter out lack of objectivity (though not the author’s point of view). Hopefully, we filter out mistakes. We see this structure as something of a Good Housekeeping seal that promises a certain level of quality: that our authors really know Texas, that their stories are about important subjects, that they are well written, that they have been verified. Indeed, this process is how we—and, for that matter, the Times, CBS, Time, Newsweek, all the MSM—measure quality. What’s more, we’re accountable. If the public doesn’t like our journalism, they won’t buy our publication. If they don’t like what we write, they will call our authors out by name. Who do the bloggers think they are, hiding behind pseudonyms, denouncing the very concept of the filter as anti-democratic, insisting that their unfiltered, unfettered, unaccountable, uncommercial way is better?
My criticism of bloggers doesn’t mean that I don’t like to read them. Quite the contrary. I love to read them; in fact, I wish we had better political blogs in Texas. The current crop is pretty much for true believers, left and right. The Texas Insider carries news briefs (“Abu Ghraib prison took a toll both on its thousands of inmates and the relatively few soldiers who guarded them, according to a witness who testified in the penalty phase for a military policeman who has pleaded guilty to abusing detainees”) and adds its own comments in a manner that is something less than what we used to call “compassionate conservative” around here (“Especially when compared to the lavish accommodations of Saddam Hussein’s rape rooms and torture chambers”). On the left, PinkDome provides a lot of good information (Texas ranks forty-seventh in state spending on child protection), but watch out for the comic relief: “We hate actual reporting and fact-gathering so mainly we’ll be scoping out people we’d like to have hot lawmaking sex with in the rotunda.”
So why not do a little blogging ourselves, you might ask? About a year ago, we thought about establishing blogs for our writers to comment about politics, music, food, culture, sports, anything of their choosing. I have to admit, the idea was appealing. I could do what I do most nights anyway—sit down at the computer and expound, mostly to old friends. But we decided against becoming bloggers, because we couldn’t guarantee that our postings would live up to the magazine’s standards. We wouldn’t have the benefit of all those middlemen—the editors who tell us when we need to start over again (as I am doing right now), the fact checkers who correct our mistakes, the copy editors who suggest how to make a point clearer. We ourselves might distinguish between our writing in the magazine and our blogs, but our readers wouldn’t. In the end, we decided that blogging wasn’t worth it.
And so, I find myself stuck on the old-fogey side of the media civil war between the MSM and the bloggers, defending the idea that our expertise and credibility do make a difference and that our filters are necessary to protect them. But the dedicated bloggers cannot allow the MSM to hold that high ground. Here’s Hindrocket again: “This is a point we’ve made over and over: The credibility of the blogosphere comes not from a ‘trust me’ attitude which is dependent on credentials and alleged quality control procedures, which all too often fail to function. It is based instead on the practical realities of instant feedback and a vast multiplicity of competing voices and perspectives.” Maybe so. But that defense sounds a lot like an excuse for carelessness or, worse, deception.
And what’s so bad about saying “trust me” to readers anyway? I have to admit that that very phrase is in my mind when I write. But trust is a two-way street. It doesn’t mean, “Hey, I’ve written about Texas politics for almost thirty years, so my observations deserve your acceptance.” It means, “I recognize that my most important asset is my credibility, and I’m going to do everything in my power to protect it.” Because if you don’t, you end up like CBS did.
One thing I’ve learned from reading bloggers and their criticism of institutions I respect, like the Times, is that objectivity is more of a fiction than I once thought. We are all prisoners of our stereotypes. One of mine happens to be that the Bush-Bullock-Laney team that governed Texas from 1995 through 1998 is the model of how political leadership ought to function; as stereotypes go, it’s a good one to have, but it does blind one to whatever virtues the current team might possess. As Walter Lippmann, the first modern political pundit, said of the perils of stereotyping: “We do not see first and then define; we define first and then see.” His observation applies to reporters as well as bloggers.
Take CBS—or, as some bloggers now refer to the network, SeeBS. Their stereotype of a media infected with liberal bias led The Big Trunk to wonder on powerlineblog.com whether CBS “passed off fake documents and a false story in hopes of influencing a Presidential election,” and Hindrocket blamed the fact that “virtually everyone in the CBS News organization shared [producer] Mary Mapes’s politics and objective (i.e., the election of John Kerry).”
I think CBS messed up big time, but the idea that anyone, much less an entire news organization, would knowingly use fake documents with the primary objective of electing a particular candidate is inconceivable to me. I know what the bloggers are going to say (and maybe some readers as well): I’m defending CBS (no, I’m not); I’m out of touch (maybe so); the case against CBS’s liberal bias is rock-solid (excessive zeal for the big story isn’t liberal bias, just bad journalism); I’m guilty of liberal bias (you’re out of touch: I voted for Bush). Journalists want to get the story, and the more they are manipulated—and the Bush White House has been a master manipulator of the media—the more they want to get it. Just because CBS wanted to get the goods on Bush doesn’t mean that it wanted to elect John Kerry. The story is reward enough. If it’s true.