Thursday, August 03, 2006

J-School Dean Tries to Spank Bloggers

For sheer petulance, defensiveness and childishness, go no farther than the August 7th New Yorker. In it, Columbia Journalism School Dean Nicholas Lemann (and long-time New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly contributor) attempts unconvincingly to rip bloggers a new one in Amateur Hour.

The longish piece is worth reading to bathe in mainstream media (MSM) cant. The most regressive MSM reporters and publishers may parrot some of the same. You would reasonably expect that someone with Lemann's background would show more restraint, equanimity and even scholarship. Forget it. He's pissed and pissy.

On the other hand, the undercurrent of hostility that MSM has shown bloggers is all here. Even as papers such as the Boston Globe order their reporters and editors to blog, damn you, blog, the official word from broadcast and papers is that bloggers are negligible, ineffective and above all amateurs. If there's real Internet journalism to do, traditional MSM will do it, thank you very much.

Unfortunately, many media-savvy folk know that Lemann's main points are tired, lame and deceitful. He chooses extreme examples to try to make his point. In addition, he seems ignorant enough of political blogging and citizen journalism that he isn't very credible. Plus, his rhetorical devices, such as gratutious "supposedly" in describing blogs' aims and benefits are low-brow.

Infantalizing Bloggers

I confess that I have been lax in following up on the Media Giraffe conference. I have more posting to do, some of it related to today's issue. There a few, but most are still in notes in a book or laptop.

Meanwhile, some of the conference-related concerns are in Lemann's article, or let's say it, rant. He tears in to citizen journalism, out of proportion to his knowledge or the facts. As the article puts it:
Citizen journalists are supposedly inspired amateurs who find out what’s going on in the places where they live and work, and who bring us a fuller, richer picture of the world than we get from familiar news organizations, while sparing us the pomposity and preening that journalists often display...That’s the catechism, but what has citizen journalism actually brought us? It’s a difficult question, in part because many of the truest believers are very good at making life unpleasant for doubters, through relentless sneering.
Instead, a knowledgeable dean would have distinguished among various examples. Locally, we love to point to the very effective Left in Lowell. There a young woman, Lynn Lupien, was frustrated with the scant political coverage by the city daily, the Sun. She attended city meetings and turned a floodlight on cronyism. After initial hostility, she is recognized as local media and has a wide readership among voters, officials and yes, media.

Perhaps more impressive are efforts we saw at the Media Giraffe conference. The leaders of Madison Commons (also journalism professors, just more savvy) actively created a grouping of local citizens who do all those things that Lemann so derides as a catechism. They believe. They do. The aim of the professors there is to show the possible and present it as a model for others.

At the conference, one attendant got down on both MSM and some bloggers, Vin Crosbie called out the big shots with, "Most of the speakers from mainstream media seem to have an intrinsic belief that the package of journalism they're been providing for the past 50 years shouldn't change, plus that their journalism ("quality, objective journalism") simply needs to be placed onto new platforms (the Web, mobile phones, etc.) to get more people to use it and ensure the future of journalism and the news media in general."

Yet, papers and TV have been agonizingly slow in understanding what is desirable and possible, even as their readers and watchers have trickled away. We can certainly understand their confusion and defensiveness, but those are still lame reactions.

Do Our Same Old Things

In Lemann's world "To live up to its billing, Internet journalism has to meet high standards both conceptually and practically: the medium has to be revolutionary, and the journalism has to be good. The quality of Internet journalism is bound to improve over time, especially if more of the virtues of traditional journalism migrate to the Internet."

He might well have written, "What we have been doing is failing. So you need to learn how to do it too. Then again, you'll never do it as well as we do. So why even try?"

To his scholarly credit, Lemann does worry a metaphor about 17th Century Stuart England and pamphleteers. There are fair comparisons between them and bloggers, down to the new media of the printing press to the Net. Lemann uses the example to conclude, "Then as now, the new media in their fresh youth produced a distinctive, hot-tempered rhetorical style."

Instead, the crux of the defensiveness here and in what we heard at the Media Giraffe conference in sessions and over coffee from the MSM reps was that bloggers had a lot of nerve to criticize real journalists. Lemann writes, "In fact, what the prophets of Internet journalism believe themselves to be fighting against—journalism in the hands of an enthroned few, who speak in a voice of phony, unearned authority to the passive masses—is, as a historical phenomenon, mainly a straw man...you have to be very media-centric to believe that the press established the tone of national life rather than vice versa."

To me, this is an absurd cop-out. Both public opinion and even J-school papers have long pointed out how much lapdogs the MSM often are. Big paper reporters lick the feet of Washington politicians. TV is particularly guilty of sensationalist journalism that they justify often with "it's what the public wants."

Those are great openings for bloggers. When they call the local, state or national governments on their lies, boondoggles and actions they want to hide, they do the service of journalism. If they drive the MSM back to gutsy coverage, that's a real service.

However, Lemann again shows the face and speaks the official view with his denigration of blogs. He depicts them as a giant fruit basket of this and that, and pretends that this infant medium will never be as tall as the old man. As he puts it:
The more ambitious blogs, taken together, function as a form of fast-moving, densely cross-referential pamphleteering—an open forum for every conceivable opinion that can’t make its way into the big media, or, in the case of the millions of purely personal blogs, simply an individual’s take on life. The Internet is also a venue for press criticism ("We can fact-check your ass!" is one of the familiar rallying cries of the blogosphere) and a major research library of bloopers, outtakes, pranks, jokes, and embarrassing performances by big shots. But none of that yet rises to the level of a journalistic culture rich enough to compete in a serious way with the old media—to function as a replacement rather than an addendum.
This is akin to taunting the three-year-old with "Ha ha. I can run faster than you can!" The MSM damned well should, they are the big kids racing against the toddlers. It was Athena who sprang full-grown from Zeus' head, not bloggers.

It remains to be seen how fast the toddlers will eventually run or where they go. We can be sure that the best of them, and the smartest of the MSM, will be able to look back at this type of screed with amusement.

Creeping Respect

I recall from my own J-school days and service on a local daily that indeed newspapers simply don't have enough ads to justify printing everything. Forgetting local coverage, editors constantly decide which stories and which parts of those stories you'll see. Back then, the rule was that roughly 90% of the incoming wire-service news got spiked -- when desks had spiked holders for such printouts -- never to be seen outside the newsroom.

Yet, let's not pretend the blogs as a group are indiscriminating. There are too many examples, daily, of where blogs have earned enough respect to have their own sources and produce real news. Instead, Lemann mirrors the shallowest of MSM by implying that blogs may not "actually produce original information beyond the realm of opinion and comment." He must not read good blogs, because he concludes that "The best original Internet journalism happens more often by accident, when smart and curious people with access to means of communication are at the scene of a sudden disaster."

The serendipity fantasy may be very comforting to an old-style MSM guy, but it shows his blinders view when he asks about blogs, "This is what all the fuss is about?"

He saves his most risible comment to the end -- and we didn't even hear these from his peers at the conference. He finally dismisses bloggers with "In other words, the content of most citizen journalism will be familiar to anybody who has ever read a church or community newsletter—it’s heartwarming and it probably adds to the store of good things in the world, but it does not mount the collective challenge to power which the traditional media are supposedly too timid to take up."

That kind of condescension is too common in the MSM. That may help explain their slowness and ineptitude in getting the handle on the Net's possibilities. Dismissing bloggers as though they are so many Chihuahuas yipping around the ankles of the mighty MSM may be a good image for the old farts to hold. Yet, it won't spur them to do their jobs better.

In fact, Lemann holds onto the idea that nobody will ever do the job like his folk. He likes the Kevin Sites, Yahoo imitation-newspaper version, but cautions, "To keep pushing in that direction, though, requires that we hold up original reporting as a virtue and use the Internet to find new ways of presenting fresh material—which, inescapably, will wind up being produced by people who do that full time, not 'citizens' with day jobs."

Also in fact, it is a disgrace that bloggers can show MSM anything. We're damned late to the party. We rose from that weedy patches of isn't-my-kitten-cute personal blogs. The Net has been available for MSM to ride and lead for over a decade. I'm betting that many newspapers and TV networks do not delude themselves as badly.

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