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January 2, 2006
Journos Reckon With Empowered Readership, Still Mostly Clueless

The media revolution of the past three years has introduced a level of empowerment to the consumers of mass media unlike anything that has ever existed before, and that empowerment comes primarily through the blogosphere and the Internet. The New York Times' Katherine Seelye explores some of the impact felt by journalists and editors at having to make themselves accountable to their readers:

Never pick a fight with someone who buys ink by the barrel, or so goes the old saw. For decades, the famous and the infamous alike largely followed this advice. Even when subjects of news stories felt they had been misunderstood or badly treated, they were unlikely to take on reporters or publishers, believing that the power of the press gave the press the final word.

The Internet, and especially the amplifying power of blogs, is changing that. Unhappy subjects discovered a decade ago that they could use their Web sites to correct the record or deconstruct articles to expose what they perceived as a journalist's bias or wrongheaded narration.

But now they are going a step further. Subjects of newspaper articles and news broadcasts now fight back with the same methods reporters use to generate articles and broadcasts - taping interviews, gathering e-mail exchanges, taking notes on phone conversations - and publish them on their own Web sites. This new weapon in the media wars is shifting the center of gravity in the way that news is gathered and presented, and it carries implications for the future of journalism.

Seelye gets close to the nature of the revolution without ever quite getting it into her sights. The difference between now and twenty years ago has to do with the Internet and the blogosphere, but she misses the manner in which they're used to emulate a "mirror media", if you will. What the technology allows people like me to do is to become our own newspaper, our own media outlet, with the entire blogosphere acting as oversight to my posts. It takes the same basic activities that reporters perform -- fact-gathering, quote-gathering, interviews on occasion, and publication -- and then subjects the result to a peer-review process that the media long since gave up.

It's that crucial component that Seelye misses in her article, and that the media misses when it considers the impact of the blogosphere. Blogs get their assumptions wrong and facts incorrect as well, but the natural peer-review process exposes it pretty quickly -- and our credibility suffers if we don't acknowledge it. The Exempt Media doesn't bother to do peer review or act in any kind of competitive manner at all, except in narrow geographic areas where newspapers and local TV stations compete for consumer attention. Competition keeps all actors in any activity accountable -- and it's that accountability that journalists resent the most from the revolution of the media consumer.

Seelye even unconsciously displays this in this statement:

But the power of blogs is exponential; blog posts can be linked and replicated instantly across the Web, creating a snowball effect that often breaks through to the mainstream media. Moreover, blogs have a longer shelf life than most traditional news media articles. A newspaper reporter's original article is likely to disappear from the free Web site after a few days and become inaccessible unless purchased from the newspaper's archives, while the blogger's version of events remains available forever.

Well, there's a remedy for that -- quit charging consumers for access to archived stories! The Times and other newspapers can argue that the storage of such data costs money, but we know that data storage does not actually cost very much at all. Hard drive costs have plummetted over the past decade. The Times sells advertising on its Internet editions, and the archives would carry the same ads as their more recent articles. If the newspaper truly feels that the archiving of stories gives bloggers an unfair advantage, then adapt to the new reality. Either that, or emulate the dodo bird and go out of business.

Seelye includes more cluelessness from those opposed to public accountability for their public performances:

Interview subjects are "annoyed that they're quoted out of context, or they did a half-hour interview and only one sentence got used. Or sometimes they're just flattered that a reporter called them," [Rebecca MacKinnon] said. "If you're one of a growing number of people with a blog, you now have a place where you can set the record straight."

Danny Schechter, executive editor of and a former producer at ABC News and CNN, said that while the active participation by so many readers was healthy for democracy and journalism, it had allowed partisanship to mask itself as media criticism and had given rise to a new level of vitriol.

"It's now O.K. to demonize the messenger," he said. "This has led to a very uncivil discourse in which it seems to be O.K. to shout down, discredit, delegitimize and denigrate the people who are reporting stories and to pick at their methodology and ascribe motives to them that are often unfair."

Schecter should be the last person complaining about partisanship. I receive his newsletter on a regular basis but find it almost unreadable as it regularly indulges in partisan sniping on the war, Hurricane Katrina, and so on. Where else would one continue to read the paranoid rantings of Wayne Madsen, the man who wrote about George Bush's "Christian Blood Cult"? Who else has a website that claims as its mission this statement:

With the Bush administration on the defensive, with rationalizations for the war fading, with public opinion shifting, with talk of troop withdrawals all the buzz even as the Pentagon hardens "permanent" bases in the mess it has made of ‘Messopotamia,’ it's time for those who oppose the war to think about where our pressure and protest might hasten the war's end.

If Seelye wanted to make a point about partisanship in the media, she should have picked a better source to discuss it. It's this kind of activity that created the need for the blogosphere in the first place. Papers like the NY Times select sources without revealing their own biases and in this case, their own vitriolic approach to politics. Instead, Seelye uses Schechter to attack the people who would hold her accountable. In truth, MacKinnon hit the nail on the head, and Seelye just gave an unintended demonstration of how right she was.

Seelye's article shows that the Exempt Media has awakened to the new reality. It also shows that it doesn't understand it very well.

Sphere It Digg! View blog reactions
Posted by Ed Morrissey at January 2, 2006 9:11 AM

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