Friday, December 22, 2006

Why I Blog: A Romance

Sara Robinson

Nieson Himmel

Dave's thoughts below on the Murray Waas smear job brought up a related conversation I've been having within my family the past couple months, as various members of the clan have reacted to the news that their family writer has turned blogger.

This has not been welcome news on all fronts, especially among the intellectual factions of the elder generation. Stalwart PBS supporters, retired suburbanites, canny consumers of mainstream media, all they know is what the MSM has told them: bloggers are unruly, untrained, unqualified, and probably unwashed as well (if the truth were told). In their minds, journalism is still a noble profession, practiced by a (preferably Ivy-) educated elite whose access to and consonance with the interests of the power structure ensure that their reportage will always be well-informed, reasonable, and balanced. Bloggers, on the other hand, are outsiders -- screeching know-nothings who lack either the class or the resources to play the game at the highest levels. Though no one has said so out loud, the unspoken thought hangs in the air: hanging out with these disreputable characters is a shameful waste of a perfectly expensive j-school diploma.

The funny thing is that these particular relatives are old enough to remember an earlier generation of reporters who, literally, were coming from a very different place. There was a time, a couple generations back, when newspaper work was one of the few accessible upward mobility routes for smart, literate, ambitious urban working-class or small-town kids who lacked money or connections. (The others included teaching, preaching, public safety careers, labor leadership, and the military officers' corps.) The majority of reporters came from modest backgrounds; and if they had a bias, it tended toward the interests of the hard-working classes they had come from. Few ever achieved stardom or made a lot of money -- and that was OK. Like teaching or preaching, the true rewards of the job were seldom reflected in the paycheck; and they knew going in that this would be the case.

This was also the era in which any city of reasonable size had two dailies -- usually a business-oriented conservative morning paper and a more liberal, labor-oriented afternoon one. All these papers had a strong and obvious political slant; while reporters were expected to deliver fair, accurate, and thorough coverage, objectivity and detachment weren't anywhere on the menu. (My first journalism teacher, a veteran of the LA Times, told us that every reporter of her era had a list of Dorothy Chandler's friends permanently taped to their desks, so that reporters would remember to say nothing but nice things about them.) People knew that the Star-Republican was going to see things differently than the Press-Democrat, and bought their papers accordingly.

This began to change in the years following World War II, as the media began to seriously corporatize. Journalism schools, which had traditionally been parked next to the teacher's colleges at the state college, were endowed by major news organizations, moved over to Big U, and staffed with faculties of retired lions from the Great Papers and Networks. The field was being elevated from a skilled trade to a Profession, on a par with doctors and lawyers. By the early 60s, the products of this system -- disproportionately white, upper-middle-class, and laced from birth into family webs connecting them to power and money -- began to show up in newsrooms. This professionalized coverage was in many ways more incisive and nuanced -- there would be no lists of the owner's wife's friends taped to their desks -- but then, by the late 70s, they didn't need a list to know whose butts to kiss. Personable, presentable, and elegant in a way the old street reporters had seldom been, this new generation of highly-educated journalists looked good at all the right parties, and attracted a growing crowd of would-be patrons offering them money, fame, and power for providing just the right kind of coverage. Their seduction didn't need to be overt, because the corruption was built right into the system they worked for.

(A lot of that game revolved around "access," the insider connections that allegedly imparted the superior insight that made these elite media personalities worth a million bucks a year. The old-timers almost never had "access;" and most of them were suspicious of it, believing that spending too much time with those people was likely to be corrupting. In any event, they seldom found that the lack of access got in their way when they wanted to cover a story. If you doubt this, reflect on the number of major news stories that have been broken by access-free bloggers in the past three years. And then reflect on the fact that Bob Woodward -- who has long enjoyed more access to the White House than any reporter in America -- was also the very last person in Washington to see George W. Bush for the disaster he is.)

RJ Eskow recently speculated over at HuffPo that, if there was a tipping point, it was probably when George Will coached Ronald Reagan in the 1980 debates; then provided "objective" network commentary on Reagan's performance in those same debates; and then, far from being sanctioned for this patently unethical performance, actually went on to win a Pulitzer Prize that year for it. That, says Eskow, was the moment the entire profession realized that the only remaining ethics code was: Anything goes. The accountability Dave wonders about may have died the day that Pulitzer was awarded.

Everybody knows it was all straight to hell in a copybasket from there, as journalism became more and more attentive to the desires of their corporate masters, and less and less connected with the concerns of average Americans. I'm not sure it's a coincidence that newspaper readership began to decline in about that same time frame. While there are half a dozen reasons for this, I have to wonder to what extent the readers wandered off because the "balanced" coverage -- which increasingly defined "objectivity" as "covering both sides" (as if there are always exactly two sides to an issue, no more and no less), rather than in terms of the story's relationship to objective truth -- was no longer compelling or useful enough to the average reader to be worth four bits a day.

Dave and I, here on the cusp of geezerhood ourselves, are probably as young as you can be and still have any memory at all of those old working-class reporters. My college newswriting teachers were among the last of this breed, mostly LA Times and NBC warhorses who'd been put out to pasture to teach us new cubs the basics. (I'm remembering the Times' Nieson Himmel, a vast and legendary gnome of a man who had provided the Times' coverage of the Black Dahlia back in the 40s-- a notorious curmudgeon who left ashes from his stogie alongside his red pen marks on my Newswriting 101 papers.) And it's possible that, as rural kids who came to the trade without much more to our credit than a way with words, we have more in common with the reporters of that lost generation than we do with the smooth and politic journalists of our own.

Unlike Dave, my newsroom years were limited and undistinguished. I decamped early on for the brothels of corporate communications, with occasional dips into magazine work. The kind of newspaper work I'd set out to do was rapidly vanishing anyway; and as the years passed, I realized that my old professors had lived through some golden years that were gone, and would not likely be coming back again.

But I was wrong about that. It turns out that the public never did lose its appetite for passionate, compassionate, opinionated, incendiary reporting. Rather, the mainstream media simply refused to feed it anything but corporatized journalistic junk food -- leaving the market wide open for millions of mom-and-pop blogs serving up big platters of home-cooked news with a generous side order of personal flair.

So I tell my family's clucking elders this: Why on earth would I want to go hang out with the Kewl Kidz of Beltway High, when I can come here and do the job the way it was done in its best days -- days you yourselves remember -- when there were many papers with many voices, daily re-engaging an opinionated and often contentious conversation about whose dreams, whose priorities, and whose interests would determine the future of their communities? Unruly? Of course we are, because democracy always is. Unkempt? Often, especially if I'm blogging from bed. Unpaid? You bet -- Mr. Himmel's first paycheck, in unconverted 1940s dollars, was still more than I've ever made from blogging. Unbiased? If a fierce commitment to the common good is a bias, count me guilty, and don't bother waiting around for an apology.

But unqualified? Don't you believe it. In a media monopoly, career success increasingly correlates more with political skill than it does with actual journalistic ability -- which is why guys like Wemple, Cherkis, and Keefer are more likely to be promoted for their audacity in taking down Waas than they are to be censured for any breach of long-forgotten ethics. But in the free marketplace of ideas -- and there's never been a freer one than this Web -- you're only as good as your facts, your analysis, and your ability to put it all together in a way that keeps the readers coming back…in other words, the same stuff that sold papers back in the days when people still read them.

What goes around has come around. We may have traded the Red Wings for Eccos, the black Remingtons for laptop computers, and the scotch and stogies for Guiness and cheetos -- but I'm starting to realize that we are those old guys and gals, coming back from The Front Page to the front of a new century. We really are mostly the same people, doing most of the same things for most of the same reasons. And that's what makes us different from the guys Dave is discussing below.

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