On criticism of the media and blogs

There’s a lot of talk on both sides of the aisle today about Wall Street Journal assistant editorial features editor Joseph Rago’s piece on the demise of the media and rise of the blogosphere and National Review editor Rich Lowry’s surprising piece in which he defends the MSM, saying that they’re not always wrong. The consensus seems to be (at least on the right hand side of the aisle) that Rago’s full of himself and Lowry’s lost it.

First up, we’ll look at what Rago (who is a conservative) had to say. In a piece titled “The Blog Mob”, he said:

Blogs are very important these days. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has one. The invention of the Web log, we are told, is as transformative as Gutenberg’s press, and has shoved journalism into a reformation, perhaps a revolution.

The ascendancy of Internet technology did bring with it innovations. Information is more conveniently disseminated, and there’s more of it, because anybody can chip in. There’s more “choice”–and in a sense, more democracy. Folks on the WWW, conservatives especially, boast about how the alternative media corrodes the “MSM,” for mainstream media, a term redolent with unfairness and elitism.

The blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared curators would like to think. Journalism requires journalists, who are at least fitfully confronting the digital age. The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage. Instead, they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps.

More success is met in purveying opinion and comment. Some critics reproach the blogs for the coarsening and increasing volatility of political life. Blogs, they say, tend to disinhibit. Maybe so. But politics weren’t much rarefied when Andrew Jackson was president, either. The larger problem with blogs, it seems to me, is quality. Most of them are pretty awful. Many, even some with large followings, are downright appalling.

Every conceivable belief is on the scene, but the collective prose, by and large, is homogeneous: A tone of careless informality prevails; posts oscillate between the uselessly brief and the uselessly logorrheic; complexity and complication are eschewed; the humor is cringe-making, with irony present only in its conspicuous absence; arguments are solipsistic; writers traffic more in pronouncement than persuasion . . .

Rago starts off his piece with a strawman, namely via the implication that political bloggers feel like they are replacements for the MSM and thus demand to be treated accordingly. Three years into my experience as a blogger, reading other blogs and talking to other bloggers, I feel confident in asserting that bloggers don’t feel they’re the new MSM. Bloggers both left and right view themselves, in part, as MSM factcheckers, not members of the MSM and what they detest and fight against is what they feel are incomplete, inaccurate, and/or sometimes outright made-up stories published in the mainstream press. Because they feel that way, bloggers use their research skills as citizen journalists’ to try and dig a little deeper into what’s been reported to see if there’s more – or less – to the story than people are being told. That’s true especially in the case of conservative bloggers, who are well aware even without the admissions of so many in the mainstream media that there is a clear liberal bias in the MSM.

As far as blog content is concerned, Stephen Spruiell at NRO’s Media Blog pretty much takes care of that argument here:

If Rago knows enough about blogs to condemn them as sweepingly as he has here, then it isn’t evident from reading his piece. No one who’s familiar with the commentary of Ed Morrissey, the reporting of Michael Yon or the humor of Scott Ott could write that bloggers “promote intellectual disingenuousness” and “produce minimal reportage,” “with irony present only in its conspicuous absence” without admitting a few exceptions for these guys and a few dozen other blogospheric talents. And once those exceptions are allowed, doesn’t the whole exercise of bashing blogs become kind of pointless? As Mark Coffey at Decision 08 points out, “Are most blogs awful? Indeed, they are. So is most of what passes for entertainment on, say, television. But the price is right, and there are some jewels among the dreck.”

Precisely. I think the same thing could be said for the mainstream media, too.

Rago continues:

Nobody wants to be an imbecile. Part of it, I think, is that everyone likes shows and entertainments. Mobs are exciting. People also like validation of what they already believe; the Internet, like all free markets, has a way of gratifying the mediocrity of the masses. And part of it, especially in politics, has to do with conservatives. In their frustration with the ancien régime, conservatives quite eagerly traded for an enlarged discourse. In the process they created a counterestablishment, one that has adopted the same reductive habits they used to complain about. The quarrel over one discrete set of standards did a lot to pull down the very idea of standards.

Certainly the MSM, such as it is, collapsed itself. It was once utterly dominant yet made itself vulnerable by playing on its reputed accuracy and disinterest to pursue adversarial agendas. Still, as far from perfect as that system was, it was and is not wholly imperfect. The technology of ink on paper is highly advanced, and has over centuries accumulated a major institutional culture that screens editorially for originality, expertise and seriousness.

What he’s essentially saying here is this: bloggers write red meat posts that are faulty and/or uninspiring and agenda-driven, don’t add much to the debate are are wholly imperfect. The media, on the other hand, has its own faults as well – chiefly, lack of accuracy and a noted push of internal agendas – but is not wholly imperfect. If hypocrisy were a dish, it would be best served cold to Rago.

In this piece, Rago also conveniently glosses over the fact that journalists, unlike most bloggers, went to college for and get paid to do what they are supposed to be doing, which is reporting the news free from bias while allowing the reader/viewer to form their own opinion on the subject matter. Most bloggers, on the other hand, blog in their spare time, are self-taught on issues related to media bias, and don’t get paid for what they do outside of ads that are run on (some of) their sites – they’re also opinion writers, as opinion writing is what blogs are. That’s not saying that because bloggers didn’t graduate with a degree in Blogology (grin) and don’t get paid for what they do that bloggers shouldn’t strive to be accurate, but instead it’s saying that when you’re trained and schooled to be a journalist, the incentive is (or should be) there for you to get the facts in your stories correct, because if you don’t, you’ll either be held accountable for it by the public, disciplined for it by your bosses, and/or in some cases, let go from your job. Bloggers, on the other hand, don’t have that symbolic noose hanging over their heads. They aren’t paid to get it right – in fact, as I noted earlier, they aren’t paid at all. They are around to give their opinions, which are sometimes correct, and sometimes not. Along those same lines, Rago insinuated in the last part of his piece that there is no checks and balance system for bloggers, which is not true. There is no “official” checks and balances system, but I have noticed a propensity in the blogosphere, at least on the right hand side of the aisle, to keep other conservative bloggers honest and on their toes. No, this doesn’t happen every time with every post, but on major issues where one blogger feels another one is flat out wrong, the blogger who feels strongly about the supposed wrongness of the other will say so. The disagreement over the use of Senator Barack Obama’s middle name exemplifies this. I should also mention that the intense analysis that bloggers subject the media to has, in some cases, gotten major media outlets like the NYT to step up their efforts in communicating to the public as to explaining why a story was written why it was, and in some cases, admitting that the way the story was reported was wrong. That is not a bad thing.

Rago’s arrogance shines through in this piece, and it’s a shame, because I think he cold have written this it without the invective that he accuses bloggers of using and in the process made his points a lot better. Some of the points I feel he was correct about: bloggers (some – he’d have you believe all of them were) do contribute to the coarsening of the political debate. Jane Hamsher’s Photoshop blackface of Senator Joe Lieberman is a primary example of that. It contributed nothing to the public debate outside of unnecessarily hardening the positions of the right against the far left and vice versa. He’s also right that the blogosphere can sometimes take on a mob (I call it a “mobospheric”) mentality on certain issues (the UAE port deal comes to mind) with people immediately reacting to an issue without thinking about it first, and joining in with what appears to be the prevailing sentiment instead of examining whatever the controversial issue is more closely before commenting. Unfortunately, points like this are lost in what Rago’s written because it’s buried in between his ad hominem-esque attacks on bloggers as a whole.

My suggestion, as a lowly blogger, would be for him to tone down his inflammatory rhetoric the next time he decides to write a piece on blogs. It’s much easier to have a discussion and debate on an issue when you feel like the criticism on the issue is constructive, and not destructive.

On to Rich Lowry’s piece in today’s NRO, titled “When the media’s right.” Rich wrote in response to the continued conservative criticism (this time from First Lady Laura Bush) that good news in Iraq isn’t covered:

The “good news” that conservatives have accused the media of not reporting has generally been pretty weak. The Iraqi elections were indeed major accomplishments. But the opening of schools and hospitals is not particularly newsworthy, at least not compared with American casualties and with sectarian attacks meant to bring Iraq down around everyone’s heads in a full-scale civil war. An old conservative chestnut has it that only four of Iraq’s 18 provinces are beset by violence. True, but those provinces include 40 percent of the population, as well as the capital city, where the battle over the country’s future is being waged.

In their distrust of the mainstream media, their defensiveness over President Bush and the war, and their understandable urge to buck up the nation’s will, many conservatives lost touch with reality on Iraq. They thought that they were contributing to our success, but they were only helping to forestall a cold look at conditions there and the change in strategy and tactics that would be dictated by it.

“Realism” has gotten a bad name lately from its association with James Baker’s daffy Iraq Study Group. But realism is essential in any war, and it is impossible without an ability to assimilate bad news, even bad news that comes from distasteful sources. Conservatives need to realize that something is not dubious just because it’s reported by the New York Times, and that the media ultimately will be wrong about Iraq only if — fully acknowledging how bad it is there — the Bush administration takes bold steps to reverse the tide.

I think Lowry makes a good point here that is being overlooked by many and that is that conservatives tend to view the media (with the exception of Fox News) as a monolith and automatically assume that everything coming out of the MSM is suspect of faulty reporting – this is not without reason, of course, but all the same, just because the media is reporting something that is negative against conservatives or the conservative agenda doesn’t mean it should automatically be dismissed. Captain Ed said it well here:

I suspect that Lowry has it more right than many of us in the blogosphere would like to admit. Certainly the media has its biases, but it simply cannot be as wrong as many of us would like to believe. Unfortunately, mainstream media outlets undermine their own credibility when they continue to insist that obvious examples of egregious malfeasance, such as Rathergate and the Eason Jordan scandals, never occurred.

Someone commented here a few days ago that we go to war with the media we have. In this case, we have done better than that — we have found sources on the front lines who report directly to us, so that we can hear good news when it occurs. However, the bad news is also occurring, and we cannot write all of it off to bias. Lowry talks about realism in the non-political sense, which is to base policy and decisions on fact and not wishful thinking. Again, though, the issue is still one of credibility: can we trust the media sources that have played fast and loose in the past?

The only solution is for news consumers to get their information through multiple sources, a lesson that bloggers learned long ago. Talk to the prime movers directly when possible, insist on metrics when they exist, and compare and contrast versions of events told from several perspectives. None of this is new advice, but it is good advice. We cannot become so paranoid that we fail to listen to anyone except ourselves, because as Lowry points out, that’s when bad decisions and disastrous policies occur.

Mainstream media outlets have their biases; they also have plenty of good reporting on which one can rely. It’s up to us as discriminating consumers to find the difference.

And the only thing I’d add to that is that it’s up to us as bloggers to point out those differences as well.

Also blogging about this: Dan Riehl (more here), Ed Driscoll, Blue Crab Boulevard, Jules Crittenden, McQ at QandO, Pete Abel at Moderate Voice, Bob Owens

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