Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Here comes the flood

I suppose that we shouldn't be surprised that people whose livelihoods depend on sustaining the old model of mass communications are so quick to misapprehend what's happening as that model crumbles around them.

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd [subscription req'd], reporting from the YearlyKos gathering in Las Vegas, is only the most visible recent example of those from the punditry class who are teetering atop their crumbling heap and sneering at the waves lapping away at it:
As I wandered around workshops, I began to wonder if the outsiders just wanted to get in. One was devoted to training bloggers, who had heretofore not given much thought to grooming and glossy presentation, on how to be TV pundits and avoid the stereotype of nutty radical kids.

Mr. Moulitsas said he had a media coach who taught him how to stand, dress, speak, breathe and even get up from his chair. Another workshop coached Kossacks on how to talk back to Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity. "One of my favorite points," the workshop leader said, "is that the French were right."

Even as Old Media is cowed by New Media, New Media is trying to become, rather than upend, Old Media….

Were the revolutionaries simply eager to be co-opted? Mr. Moulitsas grinned. "Traditionally it was hard to get your job," he said. "Now regular people can score your job."

What really aggravates pundits like Dowd -- who often earn their astonishingly powerful chunks of media real estate not so much through actual journalistic or writing merit but through a combination of luck and deviousness -- is that their influence is being diminished by people who, for heaven's sake, have no more qualifications than they do. And their evident success as opinion-makers based on their merits as writers and analysts, rather than their elite positioning atop the media heap, undermines everything that the pundit class is all about.

What Dowd doesn't get -- and which precludes her from comprehending what the hell this blogging thing is all about -- is why these bloggers exist in the first place.

And it's because of people like her.

Dowd is an examplar of the old Laswell/Lippmann model of communications, in which an elite class of "wise men" atop the media heap dispense wisdom -- and set the agenda for -- the masses from on high, and the rest of the media more or less fall into line. It was a model that more or less worked as long as (a) the elite institutions maintained their independence, both politically and economically, and (b) there was a broad diversity of mainstream media voices that could provide a conduit for information that was not disseminated from the elite towers.

Unfortunately, as media consolidation has shut down the diversity of voices, and empowered media ownership that increasingly began insisting on its own preference for a conservative bias in reporting and editorialization. As I explained awhile back:
Editors in particular played a crucial role in this, because editors directly affect not only how stories are covered, but which stories are covered. Traditionally, they also have acted as filters for bad information. And as long as there was diversity in the ranks of editors, they performed this function well.

But by the early 1990s, with diversity lessened and career tracks clearly geared for conservative yes-men, it became clear to me then that the "filtering" function of the mainstream media had become increasingly a bottleneck for information -- which was creating a real demand for the information the media failed to consistently report or emphasize.

There's a reality about this that I think most people in the mainstream media find upsetting: Information -- particularly good information, which is to say, it has factual integrity and real significance -- wants to get out; it creates its own demand for dissemination. If it's suppressed or ignored, in a democratic system, it will still find its way to the surface.

Blogging, in this sense, represents a kind of market response (that is, in the market of ideas) to the demand created by the information that wants to be disseminated. It's a way for information to get around the bottleneck. Obviously, this is as true for people on the right as for those on the left.

So really, blogs are just another communications medium, a way for information to be transmitted. Like any other medium, it has great potential for both bettering and worsening the national discourse.

What's special about blogs is their egalitarian nature: anybody can be a blogger. It represents a kind of democratization of the dissemination of information.

This is, I think, profoundly disorienting to traditional journalists, because it means their old model of the way communications is supposed to work has been upset.

That old model identifies communication with domination, as I went on to explain. The antithesis of this model -- networked person-to-person communication -- is in fact embodied, as close as possible, by the Internet.

So of course, bloggers depend on regular working journalists. So, for that matter, do editors -- and columnists. The difference with the Internet is in how the information moves -- laterally, rather than downward from on high.
Actually, the function in the old communications model that bloggers come closest to replicating is that of the editor -- not in the sense of being an overseer of writing and reportorial quality, but in setting priorities: deciding which stories are important and deserve greater attention, ascertaining which stories are reported upon.

A good blogger is not so much a journalist as a good editor (and remember, most editors are writers too). A blog is thus a kind of publication, and it attracts readers according to the quality of insight its editor brings to it.

But instead of a situation where increasingly we had only a handful of carefully selected editors who worked their way up the ranks by remaining loyal corporate yes-men, now anyone with a good news sense and a way with words can influence the course of our discourse. The Internet has shattered the old bottleneck. It has democratized how information flows in modern society.

What sparked the rise of Web-based political communication like the blogosphere was the behavior of people like Dowd. When she was named to one of the Times' cherished columnist slots, she replaced the estimable Anna Quindlen, a dependably thoughtful voice of liberalism. Dowd, in contrast, has operated more in the mode of a gossip columnist with snippy, personality-driven journalism that often becomes simply trite; while the Times' conservative columnists in the late '90s were singleminded in their pursuit of Clinton's impeachment, Dowd chose more often than not to chime in on their side, and likewise was a happy participant in the "Al Gore is a weakminded liar" theme that played out in 2000.

With that kind of voice representing "liberals" in the New York Times -- and folks like Joe Klein and Pat Caddell showing up on cable TV to represent the "liberal" side -- it's not the least surprising that genuine liberals felt the need to begin speaking up. Otherwise, their voices were not going to be heard. The blogosphere and Webzines became an effective way for that to happen.

Mind you, in some respects the blogosphere is replicating, almost out of necessity, some of the structural aspects of mainstream media: folks like Kos, Atrios, Instapundit, Malkin, and Josh Marshall all represent a kind of elite substructure within the blogosphere, built in some cases around their large communities, which function as the NYTs and WaPos of the blogosphere. But they in turn depend not just on regular journalists but on a broad network of fellow bloggers, some of whom -- like myself -- specialize in providing alternative reporting and analysis.

The effect is a real broadening of voices in our media, because the old media -- having choked itself off -- created the need for it. And those still toiling away atop their crumbling towers of influence are of course preoccupied with those egalitarian waves lapping away at them. Which is why they devote so much energy to dismissing them.

No comments: