Sunday, January 09, 2005

Bloggers vs. MSM - The Thrilla on a Mozilla

Mickey Kaus (who, along with Christopher Hitchens, remains the only saving grace of the once-cool Slate) links to a story by Tim Rutten in the L.A. Times that essentially serves as a tribute to the glories of the MSM (mainstream media, for those who aren't hip to the crazy lingo of these kids today). Rutten talks up the performance of the big news media on the tsunami story, using that as an example of the kinds of stories the top dogs can do that the little guys can't. The good points Rutten makes are swallowed up by his basic misunderstanding of the blogosphere.

When dealing with an article like Rutten's, the rule is: before the analysis comes the fisk, so let's get to it.
In the days since a tidal wave of tragedy swept over South Asia, the performance of the America's [sic] so-called mainstream media has administered a bracing rebuke to both ideological antagonists and corporate apparatchiks.

As the culture war has staggered from one bloodily inclusive engagement to another over the last two years, a cadre of dispirited academics and the handful of partisan commentators and diarists who infest cyberspace have managed to transform "mainstream media" from a description into an epithet.
As so often is the case, the essayist has shown his hand before the last card is even dealt. We see right away that Rutten is going to go on a partison, ideological rant while decrying those who do so. Rutten clearly has no idea of the vastness of the blogosphere; to suggest it consists of a 'cadre' (good choice of words there) of academics and a 'handful' of partisans and diarists is foolishly wrong. Anyone who has tried to follow just one day's worth of comings and goings on, say, any dozen blogs that are updated regularly knows that there are so many good bloggers that it is hopeless to do more than scratch the surface.
...the mainstream editors and news executives whose newspapers, magazines or broadcast divisions have become "properties" in some sprawling conglomerate's portfolio must fight a constant internal battle to preserve their ability to gather and report the news in the face of remorseless demands for cost-cutting.
Showing all the customary skills of an L.A. Times columnist, Rutten has discovered the existence of "businesses" that own "properties" in their "portfolios", but being the great visionary that he is, Rutten goes one step further and unearths the profit motive.
Then along comes something like the South Asian tsunami, and the continuing indispensability of the mainstream media is vindicated, yet again. Only those news organizations that have made the short-term sacrifices required to maintain their ability to gather and report news have been able to respond as the situation demanded. Over the last week, they have fulfilled the most basic of journalistic obligations � the duty of witness. They have placed the suffering and loss of millions before the conscience of the developed world, and the result has been a demonstration of human solidarity across regional, religious and cultural divides that seemed beyond reach just a month ago.
This is a bad piece of writing, with specious reasoning behind it, to boot. What news organizations is he referring to when he speaks of the short-term sacrifices made? Is he talking about an outfit that kept profits lower by holding resources steady, or is he contradicting himself by paying homage to the cruel businesses that kept the news organizations afloat with their cost-cutting? Let's let Rutten conclude his screed before addressing his main point at length.
Real news is covered in the same way that real wars are won: by putting enough boots on the ground.

And only the much-maligned mainstream media have the ability to put those boots where they belong. In the face of such evidence, it's time to consider what an America � or, for that matter, a world � without mainstream media really would look like.

Do Americans really hunger for news media that provide more and more opinions based on fewer and fewer facts? Do they want media in which belief trumps knowledge? Do they really desire media suffused with attitude and bereft of understanding?

The experience of the last two weeks clearly suggests not.
A summary, then, of Rutten's argument might go as follows:
  1. Corporations are bad, and so are bloggers.
  2. Disasters are big stories.
  3. The MSM has a bigger budget than the blogosphere.
  4. Only the MSM can cover disasters.
It's really that simple, when you strip away the 80% of the piece that is just hot air. Surely Rutten didn't go to all this trouble to praise the network's coverage of the tsunami...there's an underlying odor creeping out from under the surface of this piece that smells suspiciously like the idea that only the U.N. can handle disaster relief. What is troublesome to Rutten and Kofi Annan alike is that big, powerful organizations of a traditionally liberal persuasion are seeing their long-time monopolies break down. Rutten is throwing up a smoke-screen, playing a confidence game to convince you that the MSM must be venerated, dammit! It's important! These are big stories, and you bloggers are getting in the way!

No choice needs to be made between blogs and newspapers or television networks. The MSM has angered people not with its news coverage, which can at times, although rarely, be excellent. The problem is that partisan opinions have tainted the coverage to the point that a national news anchor with decades of experience would jeopardize his career with fake documents in a naked attempt to bring down a president. People have no problems with blogs such as this one because our partisanship is advertised, acknowledged and celebrated. The problem, to most, is not opinion, but rather opinion masquerading as 'news'.

Rutten is correct that major stories are sometimes best served by large organizations with multi-million dollar budgets. His 'boots on the ground' analogy leaves something to be desired, for this reason: the beauty of the Internet (indeed, one might say the whole point) is the boots are already there, they are connected in a worldwide network, and they are always 'on'. I watched no (that's right, NO) network news coverage of the tsunami. Not a single minute...but I DID see amazing video at Cheese and Crackers, a blog run by an undergrad in Massachusetts that became a sensation after Drudge linked to it. I was directed to moving stories and first-rate analysis by Arthur Chrenkoff and Wizbang. I even consulted the MSM, but through their websites rather than the television.

The vast majority of blogs are attempts at swaying public opinion or establishing a sense of community between like-minded individuals. That is as it should be...after all, most bloggers have other occupations and blog for the sheer love of sharing their thoughts and feelings and having an audience. Some blogs, however, are quite serious. Dozens of blogs are kept by soldiers and civilians in Iraq, by both Americans and Iraqis. Many blogs are devoted to the study of law, economics, history, or mathematics, both professional and amateur.

The primary concept behind the blog is the hyperlink. A blogger will tell you about an article he read, or an idea she has, or a really cool album, then, if you're interested, you go find out more. The blog is primarily a navigation tool, and your own private 'briefer'. Some people like their Sunday Times, some dig the Instapundit. The MSM isn't going anywhere, but neither can it afford to complacently declare its impartiality while openly favoring one point of view over another. Your precious MSM, Tim, is going to be just fine, if it learns one simple little lesson - if it's opinion, just don't call it news...

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