| Oh, let me tell you about Nick Coleman!
Just kidding. Sorry; he’s a colleague, and I’m not going to jump up and down on him now. Would I like someone with whom I work to snap a cellphone picture of me making a silly face, and add a caption about something they overheard while I was ranting to a pal? Nope. Newspapers are like Vegas. What happens there, stays there.
Here’s his piece on blogs; judge for yourself, as some say.
(tick . . . tick . . . tick)
Okay. Listen. If I beat up on the old media, it’s often out of despair: when CBS pulls something this boneheaded again after being caught, you know the culture at Black Rock is too insular, too inert, too somnambulant to change until all the old guys hang it up and totter off for a long vacation in Florida. (“You’re going to Florida? But Drudge has an item up about the next hurricane!” “Oh, please. You expect me to believe Drudge?”) Often it’s out of frustration; big media operations are too lardy to move as quickly as they should. They’re brontos lumbering into velociraptor territory. But even if they tossed caution to the wind and hired 5 bloggers to write editorials, it’s possible that those voices would turn stiff and institutional in six months. I don’t know. I do know that this is not the end of newspapers – they’ve been talking about that as long as I’ve been in the business. But it is the end of the way newspapers operate. It has to be. Let me explain with an unfashionable thesis:
Newspapers are invaluable. Two reasons.
One: they have the resources to go places and report. You can argue about how they report it, but there aren’t many bloggers today who can get on a plane, fly to the Sudan, use embassy contacts and press credentials to attempt to get the story out. If the New York Times wants to do a story on something, it can do it, and devote however many resources are necessary. (Like the Augusta National Golf Tournament story, for example.)
There’s an inherent advantage in belonging to a news-gathering organization that has nothing to do with whatever skills or insights the individual reporters might have. “I work for the Washington Post” simply has more credibility than “I post on blogspot,” in the same way that “I practice at the Mayo Clinic” has more cred than “I’ve read Gray’s Anatomy.” Doesn’t mean that the hospital doesn’t have malpractice sutis, or that the guy who’s studied anatomy doesn’t know how to set a bone. But institutions confer legitimacy, like it or not, and that’s not going to change. Blogs will have to become institutions themselves, i.e., develop an identity, a track record, a certain presence. This can be done more quickly than you’d think, and is not an insurmountable problem. A year ago, who’d heard of Powerline? But it’ll take a while for a brand to carry over like the Times, or Post, or Globe.
Two: newspapers set the parameters for an issue or reflect what other media have already established, based on the attitudes and opinions of the managerial class and lower-echelon editors. As I’ve said before, there is no conspiracy. There is no memo that comes down daily to tell us how to slant the news or twist the facts to achieve our objectives, which include the imposition of world-wide socialism, pansexual liberation, confiscation of property and the replacement of dogs with neutered, docile cats.
But there doesn’t have to be a conspiracy; people in the business tend to think a certain way. People in the detergent business don’t rise to the top by insisting that Tide should abandon powdered surficants and sell a box of rocks against which the housewife can beat the garments in the nearest stream. Likewise, people in the news business believe Certain Things about the way things should be. Sometimes they’re basic simple premises that make everyone’s life easier: Multiculturalism Good! Sprawl Bad! Sometime they’re reflexive, and unacknowledged, antipathic reactions to conservative notions, which are regarded not as reasoned opinions but a wholesale rejection of the accomplishments of modernity. I could give you many examples of colleagues who don't fit those descriptions. We’re talking about thousands of people in hundreds of newsrooms, after all, and I’m lucky to work with some smart, fair writers whose finely tuned BS detectors swivel right and left with equal ease.
But how do they vote? Can’t say. In general, however, you’ll find that most journalists drift to the left. They range from traditional Democrats to moderate-to-indifferent Democrats to fiercely partisan Democrats to DINOs who might well be Republicans if the idea of voting GOP didn’t make them feel as if Mom would rise shrieking from the grave and accuse them of making FDR cry. There are a few Republicans in any newsroom, but they harbor the love that dare not speak its name.
(Obligatory disclaimer: I have never been told what to write. I have never had an assertion in a column challenged on ideological grounds except in my Newhouse work, and only then because the editor wanted to know the factual basis for the assertion. Fair enough, that. The Strib hired me knowing full well I was one of those low-tax / free-market nutballs. There is no ideological litmus test for hiring. Apply for a job with clips that read like ravings from a DU forum, you won’t get hired. )
So the MSM has this useful function: it tells you what the Overclass is thinking. You can compare that to what you know. Our paper, for example, had a story today about the draft controversy. It was fair, but incomplete, inasmuch as it didn’t mention that Kerry himself had proposed mandatory national service.
“That’s not incompleteness,” you say. “It’s just not necessarily necessary, is it?” Well, maybe not. But when you know something else about a story, because some guy somewhere googled a cache and linked to the piece and recast the issue somewhat, the otherwise ordinary newspaper story feels incomplete. If Jim Lehrer in tonight’s debate asks a question about the draft but doesn’t mention Kerry’s proposal for another sort of conscription, the blog-savvy observer might well wonder: do I know more than Jim Lehrer? Unpossible! Perhaps he didn’t find Kerry’s proposal relevant. Why? Isn't national service like a draft - and if not, shouldn't we hear why?
And so forth.
This puts journalists in a wretched bind. No doubt people emailed the author of the Strib piece, asking why he hadn’t mentioned the Kerry proposal. Maybe he had; maybe it was trimmed for space; maybe it was judged irrelevant since this was, after all, about a supposed Bush scheme. I have no idea. But anyone writing for newspapers nowadays has to steel himself for instantaneous feedback of this sort, and it has to make you a bit twitchy. Perhaps Steven Levy’s ankle-biter characterization isn’t that far off. (Note the update-update-update additions; don’t you wish newspapers could provide that sort of rolling conversation.) Ticks on an elephant? No, ticks don’t get under the skin. But try walking with a confident gait when you know someone’s going to be picking apart your socks, the condition of your heels, the way you tied your laces, and that tell-tale scuff on the toe. And that’s just what they’re saying about your feet.
This sounds sympathetic, doesn't it? Let me clarify: I am sympathetic with those who are trying to adapt as fast as they can. When Luther nailed his theses to the door, it was a challenge; some read what he had to say. Others wondered what gave him the right to pick up a hammer.
Okay, I'm reaching, obviously. Anyway: Eventually we’ll all work it out. The relationship will be symbiotic, not parasitic. I hope. And I hope newspapers realize that their strength is their local reporting – I mean, how else are you going to know who killed who? I’d prefer that papers put the bulk of their international coverage online. For national coverage, I think most papers will realize that the news cycle now lasts an hour, and that they’re used to digesting a 24-hour news cycle for people whose news cycle is seven days long, or worse. Hire some guys to read all the blogs, have them show up at news huddles, and listen to them when they say “okay, this story has been picked over at pickedover.com, which gets 200,000 hits a day, and they have a new angle we might want to include.”
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.
But still. That ought to count for something.