On the Evolution of the Village Writers Guild and the Blogosphere
There are days when I really pity my friend Matt, who has done so much unheralded work behind the scenes as well as out in front, and who sometimes gets sucked into to soon-forgotten but potentially damaging controversies when what he really deserves is a leadership role in the party hierarchy. Full Disclosure: I'm personal friends with some of the people I'm going to talk about here, and not really "unbiased." Which is sort of the point of what most everyone involved is trying to say, I hope.
Backing up, I think we can all agree it's been a long time (if ever) since journalists could accurately claim to maintain "academic" standards in reporting. I'll define "academic" as "ethical, peer-reviewed, critical, and concerned with demonstrable, repeatable truth and full discovery/disclosure," as it pertains to the art and science of reporting. Anyone who disagrees with my premise about the state of modern 'reporting,' just go over to Media Matters and type in the searchbox the name of your (least) favorite media celebrity; the last 8 years have been a treasure trove for regulators (who've gone unused, sadly), comedians, and ethics panel schedulers. Truth has been the most frequent victim, followed to the sacrificial altar of profit and propaganda by ethics, balance, and fairness. Let's don't get started on issues like racism, warmongering, sexism and pro-corporate bias...
Anyway, the whole Lind/Newberry/anyone-else involved-in-this-spat mess raises some interesting questions, separate from those of "who first said what and how" in Matt's post. I'm minded, reading the post and lots and lots of behind the scene emails, communications and previous posts on the topic, to ask: who is a "journalist" these days? How are those people "different" from "bloggers?" What are "credentials?" What is "expertise" and when, if at all, should it be employed, or mandated? I'd like to tackle a few of these because we're at a critical time in the history of the production of information, as the administration changes and revenue streams grow and shrink in various quarters.
In an idea world, there would be consequences for lying, stealing, and being willfully ignorant in the production and dissemination of information presented as "factual news." Opinion would be free, and an option open to all, but also always identified as such. "Public" resources like the airwaves (and as I think should be included, broadband) would be carefully regulated, and public resources would be applied in the production of dead-tree product, such as the nation-wide dissemination of something like The Federal Register, the better for citizens to keep track of the daily business of government. Of course we're a long way from any of that.
But the Founders believed in, and in principle I agree with, the notion of a Free Press. Today, our problem, and at the same time our greatest hope, is what exactly is "The Free Press? This isn't a new topic in the blogosphere, but in the Lind/Newberry/etc case, we've a fine opportunity to look at how that construct is defined, maintained, and understood.
In a nutshell: whom do you trust more, and why?
Unpaid Bloggers? "Online magazine" writers who get a corporate paycheck? Your Aunt Mabel after she's been into the blackberry brandy? Volarus of the Centauri system via the metal in your fillings?
One part of the ongoing Village vs the Blogosphere War that really gets me: it's the easiest thing in the world for a blogger to become "discredited, "but for a Villager, the opposite is mostly true.
Imagine with me here for a moment: as a blog reader, you've likely come across more than one report of the vile depths to which paid Village professionals can sink, in terms of maintaining journalistic "ethics" standards. Judith Fucking Miller fucking her sources; Tom "The Moustache of Understanding" Friedman marrying a billionaire while shilling for policies that benefit billionaires; JimmyJeff "HotMilitaryStud" Gannon literally whoring himself out and showing up 170 times at the WH at night...those are just the low hanging fruit.
The truth is, Village journalists are no different than the rest of us, or they are worse. That is, they gossip, fuck the people they report upon and work with, have petty rivalries, get drunk and do drugs, cheat and steal to get ahead at work, and spit on puppies. Just like you. Oh, wait a minute? You don't do those things all the time, or you try not to? Well, now we get to the heart of the matter.
How does one know? How can one tell if a source is "legitimate" or "professional" (in the non-prostitute sense) or "trustworthy?" When does personality matter more than professional status, if ever? When does 'reputation' and gossip outweigh the 'academic' record and CV of the author? The biggest problem with the Village press is that it will do anything, cover up anything, employ any amount of in-group omerta, to cover the unethical behaviors and relationships of its own membership. [And I am not specifically accusing Lind of anything, please note.] But in general, it's my belief that Villager journalists are much like the Village politicians they sleep with: what happens in the Village, stays in the Village. Little People just don't need to know.
In real life, it's always hard, if you're speaking of a plumber, a cowherd, a doctor, or a lover. It's even harder in terms of the production of information about politics, in which the stakes are so much higher, and the playing ground so much more deadly. And that's really what it comes down to in this case. Newberry the Unpaid, "uncredentialed" but generally brilliant polemicist and analyst, vs. Lind the Paid Professional with all the corporate backing and support from fellow Villagers and wannabe Villagers, but of dubious "expertise" on the matter at hand. One could make a case why both are to be believed, and doubted, and why both made valuable contributions, or didn't, in this matter. Or perhaps not. Reading the comments at the various threads on the matter (and I think we even wrote some here, Lambert fill in a link if that's the case), it's very hard to tell. I have my own opinions, but as I said, I'm not unbiased.
I do know this: it's next to impossible to dislodge a paid Village journalist from her/his position, no matter how many times there is well-documented evidence that said journalist has lied, fucked a source, taken money from a source, done all that, or worse. But a blogger? Feh. As we're seeing with the application form to work in the Obama administration, bloggers cannot have ever done anything even remotely questionable, and still be taken seriously by Serious Village professionals, let alone get a job. It doesn't matter how many great ideas you have, how many stories you've broken, how much unpaid, dedicated labor you've put into your writing...no, what matters is your Social Standing in the Village hierarchy. Are you white/male/well closeted? Do you have a trustfund? Did you go to the "right" school, be it Ivy League or Regency/Patrick Henry? Is your father an established Villager, your mother an heiress? Time and time again, these things outweigh your actual value as producer of interesting, timely, critical information, policy, and/or reporting. Who you are matters more than what you do, who you know and are liked and respected by more than your ability to produce policy. I am not alone in this opinion, A-listers like Digby, Atrios and Aravosis have at times made this theme a personal blogging crusade, not to mention a large number of us C-listers who've lamented similar trends developing up in the paying tier of the blogosphere.
Anyway, I'm not actually qualified to weigh in on the topic of Matt, Lind and Newberry's many posts on the subject at hand, so I won't. But I will say that Matt has once again earned my respect, for being willing to admit he could have been wrong, and for giving Lind a chance to respond publicly. To my knowledge, Lind hasn't offered Newberry a similar opportunity at Salon. Nor, it seems, did he do any internet research/googling on the original post that got him into hot water with Newberry in the first place. That raises another point:
Do paid professional journalists have any obligation at all to review the blogosphere, as they produce writing on various topics that are "new to them," but well-discussed here in the blogosphere? I guess it's too much to ask today's journalists to do something as 'difficult' as review academic journals and papers on complicated topics like international relations and history, economics, or the history of policy. That's what 'think tanks' are for, and if you can't afford to buy their expensive journals or visit DC regularly to hear the Serious People speak on them, fuck off. And anyway, the Little People would just be bored and confused if such discourse started showing up in mainstream publications. /deep snark/ But what about the "lighter" fare found in the blogosphere? Do any of us deserve credit, or notice, or a chance to respond when our work is...let's call it "mirrored" in the SCLM?
I bet it wouldn't be that hard, and indeed probably has already been done by someone: a review of the number of times memes, jokes, snark, and critique have originated in the blogosphere, only to go uncredited when one appears in some large, corporate publication or news program. The joke over at the Crack Den is that "The Daily Show" wouldn't exist but for what the people produce every minute of every hour of the day at the Crack Den, for free. I've looooong believed that the Dem party, and much of Hollywood and Madison Ave, would do well to properly tap into the blogosphere and the great and varied talent found there. Most of us who blog are pitifully cheap and eager to contribute and reach a wider audience, and would literally jump at the opportunity.
But in my opinion, the original Lind piece is just one more example of the evil nature of the way that information production works in this country. Yes, I'm not unbiased, but I still think I could make a strong case for my position. Which is simply: it's the easiest thing to steal from a blogger, without consequence, and then to slap down that blogger's objections with backbiting, and the power that a paid position in the SCLM affords, influencing less informed readers and pundits and HR people, the better to make sure that blogger never gets a paying gig or is ever listened to by policy makers.
Newberry isn't the only "toxic" blogger out there, not by a long shot. Like him or hate him, bloggers and Little People who want to contribute to the formation of policy and political information should take note of this case, and others like it. Not only because it could happen to you, but because of basic questions of fairness, ethics and priorities. Policy affects *all* of us, shouldn't all of us get at least a small opportunity to voice our opinions about it?
Do we care more that people in the Village are protected and comfortable, and free to live secret lives of debauchery and decadence? Or would we like to get back to an era when pampleteers and freely produced newsletters actually influence the political process, regardless of wealth and social status? Which is better: many, diverse voices sharing an equal field in which they may express their views, or a small number of for-profit publishing concerns owned by partisans, foreigners, and the uberwealthy? You know what I think. Or hey, I've got it:
How about truly "academic, professional" standards of information production, and hiring on the basis of merit and production quality, in which one's personal characteristics, so long as they don't intrude on professional ethics, don't matter? I guess that's just a radical dream.
...if you've got any similar David v. Goliath stories about bloggers and SCLM journos, please share them here. Thanks.