Monday, July 21, 2008

Two degrees of separation

It's amazing how clueless mainstream pundits are. They sit next to the pulsing heart of journalism, but they miss the most basic facts.

Jonathan Alter and I undoubtedly have mutual friends, since he graduated a year before me from Harvard. He's undoubtedly a sophisticated talker and a good egg at parties.

Yet somehow he can write a column on blogging that's oblivious to easily known facts of the genre. His educational pedigree is no longer enough.

He writes, "KellyB couldn't resist amending the gracious condolence" with a gibe. Alter doesn't give a link, so it's not a sure thing, but the gibe is most likely KellyB's signature line, which Alter would know if he were anything but a blog newbie.

"Bloggers rarely pick up the phone or go interview the middle-level bureaucrats who know the good stuff." Duh! We do opinion! We analyze. We remember. We're competing with Alter, not with reporters. And we're doing a better job.

Not to mention that the Washington press corps rarely picks up the phone either, at least not to talk with those scruffy mid-level bureaucrats. They're too busy dressing up press releases from Cabinet secretaries as their own work so they can get to the shrimp and canap├ęs.

The one interesting thing that Alter does get right is that print journalism is going exactly the wrong way by cutting newsroom jobs. The future is in facts, not in opinion. What's happening to journalism is specialization. There's no longer any reason why news, opinion, and classified ads belong together.

Opinion, to Alter's eventual chagrin, will be free. People love to give it away, will give it even if you don't ask, will inflict it on you when you don't want to hear it. As long as pundits have as little insight as Alter shows in this column, why would anyone pay for it?

Yet, after at least noticing the need for reporting, Alter immediately stubs his toe on the assumption that print has to be on paper, that the advantage of print journalism is articles too long to read on the web. Jon, listen carefully: paper is going away. Print is more readable on the Internet than some blurry, smudging newsprint. The inverted pyramid on the Internet goes deep, no matter how shallow it often looks.

Next, Alter objects to the web's pseudonymity. Until we identify ourselves, he says, we won't have any influence beyond our contributions. This is facile bullshit. We already have influence, even if Nancy Pelosi won't answer my email because I don't live in her district (non sequitur!). That's an old custom that deserves to die away, and it will, long before we bloggers all identify ourselves. Meanwhile, those of us who write regularly, even under a pseudonym, have reputations to defend that we clearly care about.

Alter wants to blame the preference for rumor on the Internet. As if. The failings of mainstream journalism to call bullshit by its real name give rumor credence. Blogs fight against that, at least mine does. But corporate media still hews to the pretense of balance; its ethos is no longer to find and print the facts.

So, yes, we take offense at the bullshit enshrined in Newsweek and other sources. But we also take offense at the ridiculous claim that we're the source of the bullshittification of the American conversation. I mean, has he watched Fox lately? McCNN? MSNBC? Why does anyone still read Drudge? As Atrios would say, time for another blogger ethics panel.

Alter finishes with the apotheosis of corporate journalism - thesis, antithesis, shrug:

By the end of this first Internet campaign, we'll know everything. And nothing.
Enjoy your pay, Jon. It won't last.

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