Bloggers vs. Journalists vs. Wingers

Media | Language/Structure
I thought I'd be able to weigh in, umm, subjectively on the blogger vs. journalist question; I'm in neither camp. (Though the Boston Herald identified me as a blogger today). My expertise as an independent observer, I hope, speaks for itself on this site. I actually derive inspiration from both. I publish pieces online, which are available through RSS syndication. I use the Drupal community publishing software, and have innovated an improved commenting system called ViewPoints. I don't have an editor, though I'd love to have one. I showed up at the Democratic National Convention, sat in the blogger's section with a "not a blog" hat on, and was unable to blog, churning out a 20,000-word account weeks later. My regular reading consists of long-essay magazines, so that's the style I prefer here. Each piece I treat as I would one of my own children (not that I have any), nurturing them before sending them out in the world.

The blogger vs. journalism question has come up numerous times in the blog for the Berkman Center's Conference on Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility, following Jay Rosen's conference paper that the debate is "over." My first response to this was a brief 500-word comment; I put in another couple of hours and trippled my response here.

The act of declaring that "blogging vs. journalism is over" has no more effect than declaring that "red vs. blue" doesn't exist in America (as Jonathan Rauch did in the most recent Atlantic Monthly ). The people– you know, the ones who pay for the media, and have been launching their salvos at the notion of this Harvard conference– always want a good fight. Which is why the most consistent ethos across all Joe Bloggers is that they're gonna fight the media, and call it silly acronymns (MSM) if it pleases them, and claim victory for the perhaps 2% of the time that the media makes a mistake. (A few months ago, I examined the populist rage against the media).

If a Harvard conference calls this fight over, will the participatory media follow along? I doubt it. The didn't when Scott Rosenberg had done so back in 2002.We stll need some sharp dichotomies to understand what's going on. It's that there isn't any dichotomy. It's that there's two.

Two dichotomies

What Journalism is up against

Journalism has always had its critics. I'll call them open-sourcers — a the community of critics who are constantly pressing journalism to be more open, fair, and to reveal more of their sources. Traditionally this has comprised scholarly journalism reviews, media watchdogs, letter-writers, Internet forums, and, most recently (and perhaps most visibly, blogs). When one considers a recent journalism exposé of the the fraudalent Killian memos used on 60 Minutes, it was not discovered by bloggers, or exclusively amplified by bloggers, but one can say that it was a combination of the open-sourcers (This I determined by examining the development of the story).

Certainly, Jay Rosen means the same thing as I do in referring to Open Source Journalism. Though he subtitles this rule as "My readers know more than I do," which is a rather fatuous statement. Some readers may know more than the reporter, but not always, and that's why we pay money for the newspaper and not the other way around. Rosen has to provide some actual data to explain how many stories over the course of a year have to be corrected. And it's not always "My readers"– it could well be other readers in another distant burg whom are forwarded the story. Perhaps a more useful slogan would be "Readers can use Google, too."

Can we talk about bloggers?

Who are the critics of bloggers? Rosen has let the journalists off the hook– apparently for the reason that reporter John Schwartz of the New York Times saluted the coverage of "the blogs" after the tsunami catastrophe, saying that it was better than any other media. But should we trust him simply because it appears in the Times? Did Schwartz consider comparing how the top online political writers reacted to the tsunami, as I did? did anyone survey a group of random Americans to see how they followed the news from the other side of the world, and which they preferred? He interviewed four bloggers, and a couple of technology evangelists. I actually took the step of asking one those quoted whether they were engaged in "blog triumphalism", and Jamais Cascio, editor of the WorldChanging blog, retreated "It's not so much that blogs did it better than other media, but that they did it better than anyone who watched the electionblog frenzy in October and November would have expected." Never mind: "Schwartz said so," according to Rosen. The Times, apparently, is a reliable punching bag of the old media– except when it's called on as an expert witness to validate the new.

Let's consider blogs. But which ones? Bloggers have been able to dodge criticism either by rotating the definition of "blog", or crying foul ("It's only a blog!") whenever someone– usually from the media or academia– tries to criticize. Henry Farrell of George Washington University called this "the blogging two-step," in an enlightening post and commentary on the collaberative blog Crooked Timber. He found it hypocritical of the web's most popular individual blogger, Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, to not bother to check his own sources. Reynolds's best defense is that he's not meant to be taken as an authoritative news source.

So let's avoid using the terms bloggers in illustrating the second dichotomy:

What the wingers are up against

There's a bunch of hacks and wingers who largely, but not exclusively, find a home in blogs, talk radio, and tabloid newspapers. And their nemesis is responsible writers , who largely, but not exclusively, make homes in the traditional media/academia). Responsible writers/journalists of each medium decry the hacks and wingers in their midst. A "hack" is the traditional term, but in the software world, "hacks". I have introduced "winger" because I wanted to convey not only that the writer is opinionated (as in left- or right- winger), but most of the time they are essentially "winging it"– not doing the research, not following up, not caring about the subject. Here's a how Orville Schell explains the distinction, comparing his start in journalism in 1975 with The New Yorker, with how he viewed the landscape in 1996 upon being installed as the Dean Journalism at UC-Berkeley, as quoted in Deborah Tannen's The Argument Culture:

You could be critical, but to write from a perspective of mockery disdain, or overblown cynicism is dangerours…. The whole point was to try and find where you connected to your topic and cared about it. That's certainly not the predominant sentiment behind much of what gets written nowadays, which is very flip, even savage, and often contemptuous. This tends to create a climate where everybody, writers included, feels very vulnerable, very attacked and insecure.

What's unique about the blogosphere, for now, is that the leading practitioners lend support to the folk belief that all blogs are equal, which lends credence to the vast commentariat of wingers. Even Josh Marshall, who is peerless and "beyond category," gave props to the blogosphere for helping take down Trent Lott, despite the fact that he did a majority of the work in doing so. I'll chalk up his sentiment as a certain Ellingtonian grace. Ellington never had a bad word about anybody, and I'm hard pressed to find an instance where Josh Marshall is ranting about "the media" as almost everyone who writes a blog does (see my reflections of Duke Ellington and Martin Luther King on MLK Day, The Character of One's Content)

Further Questions & Comment

Why the blogger identity is so important to this discussion? I have a sense that there is essentially a folk nature to this all– I blog, you blog, we blog– so when a blogger gets tortured in Iran, bloggers around the world feel a special sense of solidarity. I guess I miss out on that solidarity of blogdom, but I do feel sympathy as a human being.

Has anyone considered whether there is anything particularly beneficial about the weblog layout? I have expressed my doubts, and I suppose that a necessary test could compare information displayed in a log format, and that displayed in the headlined format. A test may be unnecessary. A review of online political writers, many of the new efforts are group-designed, show a shying away from the webloooong format.

Does the weblog format lead to the blog ethos, which leads to a of the wingers approach on blogs? I have a feeling that it does. I think that the whole Zonkette affair would have run its course differently had it not been carried out in blogs. Suppose that Zephyr had published everything she had in essay form; suppose that anonymous comments were not allowed on the blog, would this have inspired the firestorm?

So, if you're a newspaper, an organization, or a political group, do you really need a blog? Or would it be sufficient to have a system which facilitates greater feedback from the readers?

My approach

I don't see a problem with writing an occasional winger piece; I used to do it much more. One thing that kept me in check was establishing different story types — much like a conventional magazine or newspaper — which would encourage me to write more diverse styles, particularly longer, well-researched ones.

I winged because there was a Presidential election going on; I winged because I didn't know any better. But I had set a goal for myself that I would work on a constructive media. Each new piece I wrote should reference some pieces I had already written; I would sharpen my expertise into the themes which I had originally set out to study. I do not have the capacity, or the time, to riff on every single piece of news. I joke that my approach tries to embody a "Powell Doctrine" of journalism– only go into battle if you have overwhelming force of facts.

This piece was written for the Berkman Center's Conference on Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility. So my short answer to achieving credibility for any would-be journalist is thus: be responsible. Don't be a winger. But it ain't easy to overcome the fact that sixty percent of how your message is received is based on perception and prior prejudices (as I learned in a corporate training class)

So press for a system like the Hearsay Network which would allow for standard, structured, scaleable way of enabling readers to qualtitatively evaluate your work.

Update, March 8th: I further developed the hypothesis on "wingers" after the conference– see Presenting Blogger Archetypes. I also authored a 4,600-word piece about Inclusiveness at the Conference. Also, the major U.S. blogs have largely abandoned coverage of the tsunami catastrophe and its aftermath. The Times and other denizens of the mainstream media have not.
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    The BJC Conference Has Begun Anonymous Jan 21 ’05 5:57PM