Summer of Ignorance turns to Fall of Media

Media | Language/Structure

I’m returning from my summer break away from writing. As I hinted three months ago, I’d be on a bit of a break for a while– work had gotten pretty intense, and I was in the process of moving across town (which caused two outages of over a day last month: one by my poor planning, one by Verizon’s mistake in fixing my phone line), and then setting up the new place. And I wanted to get some normal sleep.

As my occasional correspondent Seth Finkelstein announced that he was s back from his blog vacation, I thought I’d accept the end of summer here as well. Seth found that the number of subscribers climbed while he was away. Civilities enjoyed the same good fortune, climbing from 60 to 70. I do not consider myself a blogger, and as I’ve noted many times before. Part of my New Gatekeepers series this spring spelled out what I saw as the values of bloggers, which I took exception with. What I clearly share with bloggers is the lack of an editor; but while bloggers celebrate this arrangement– encouraged by former reporters who have outgrown a need for editors– I bemoan it. My offer from June still stands: there’s room for a bigger team here at Civilities.

Though I suppose I do share solidarity with the bloggers on one big count. Somewhere, some place, somebody is saying something stupid– and it needs to be corrected. The writer and technology critic Andrew Orlowski a specialist in this area, pointed out to me in an email the utter futility of one trying to expose it all. Which is why it’s absolutely necessary, if one is an amateur in this field as I am, to take a complete break for a long period

Of course, if a media organization with a fact-checking staff can say stupid things, then, what’s holding back the average Joe from doing so? It’s not just stupid in the sense of ill-informed. It’s banal, repetitive. derivative, self-centered. Blogging is the hors d’ouevres of the publishing world. Anybody can make their own pigs-in-blankets at home by popping some in the microwave, and it’s going to be just as tasty as what you get a wedding. But can you eat a whole meal of them? Not that chefs are so special, either. Anybody can follow a recipe, just as anyone can be a reporter for a day, but you only become a chef if you are able to do it day-in, day-out, motivate your line cooks, and your livelihood depends on your not poisoning anyone.

So for my online summer reading, I stopped bothering to read the individually-produced blogs, and only took a peak at Seth’s or Shelley’s once or twice. I limited myself to the collaborative ones, where there at least was a sense that people were constructing something together. I mostly participated in Christopher Lydon’s Radio Open Source show, both the online website and the radio show. I’ll be writing a review of the program later this fall. There’s the Personal Democracy Forum, which is has become more personal than forum. And now that the semester has started, I’ve returned to USC’s Online Journalism Review. Editor Robert Niles sent out an introduction for his new students, which I augmented as the resident curmudgeon. Overall, a relaxing summer of being a passive media observer…

And with a brief email Seth brought me back into the jurassic world of the blogs. Every so often he comes across an event he calls "Godzilla vs. King Kong", the occasion when big, fire-breathing media-saurs take time out from roaring at the mainstream press to instead target each other. This time it was Bob Cox vs. Jeff Jarvis. Ahh, savor the battle. Jeff had had just finished his summer-long battle with Dell customer support when he corraled up some ideas to help the Hurricane Katrina relief effort, under the title “Recovery 2.0.” Predictably this echoed around the blogs, but Bob called him on his tendency to be a dilletante on these matters. What’s going on here? Jeff remains a member of Bob’s Media Bloggers Association. Bob started it as a result of his legal altercation with the Times; he envisioned an organization to help members defend against future lawsuits. Jeff, meanwhile, after spending a month at the start of the year exchanging public letters with the paper’s executive editor, now finds himself consulting there. Other things can be at work here; having tried to understand Bob’s motives before, and having been corrected, I’ll stop now. As it happens, I happen to agree with Bob’s point here, if I tarry with his methods of diplomacy. At least he got Jeff’s attention. I know I didn’t.

And Bob has a better point that he posted last Tuesday on The National Debate — a listing of some of the tall tales that were repeated by the media, and then by public officials, and by the public (starting with the apparent rapes and murders happening in the Superdome.) Bob wanted an independent commission to investigate all the misinformation that came out of CNN. Incidentally, in a comment a week later, he pointed to an article reproduced from the Times, David Carr’s sober analysis of the news misinformation: “Many of the more toxic rumors seem to have come from evacuees, half-crazed with fear sitting through night after night in the dark. Victims, officials and reporters all took one of the most horrific events in American history and made it worse than it actually was.” Still, Bob should repeat his specific call for more media accountability. But we need absolute exacting measurements to push for a reliable assessment of the problems.

One person who does some sort of measuring is Ken Waight, whose website Lying In Ponds ranks nationally syndicated columnists by “partisanship”– or more specifically, the partisan content in each column. Back in May, I learned via Bob’s blog that Ken would stop ranking the columnists of the Times once they started charging. On a lark, I offtered to underwrite the $50 subscription to TimesSelect for him. (I am already getting TimesSelect as I pay $276/year for Sunday delivery). He hedged, pointing out that his readers would not all be able to access those columnists. But I retorted that it was plainly his job as a media analyst to read things that his readers wouldn’t necessarily have time for, anyways. I saw that last week Ken had put out a call. And I reaffirmed my pledge this evening. I’lm going to get him $25 via PayPal (once I get money in there), and then see if anyone will match me.

Needless to say, if it goes through, that will buy me a bit of advertising for the year. So I ‘d better have something to show for it. And my very next piece will fully defend the Times‘s decision to offer the paid service, and call into question any online media observer who dismissed it outright. And I don’t necessarily think that Ken’s method is most informative way to rate columnists, so I’ll cover that as well in the piece.

It’s good to be back. Now I need a little rest.