Friday, February 03, 2006

Some thoughts on blogging

At some point last Saturday, Orcinus had its three millionth visitor. Considering that I've been at this only a little over three years now, that's a pretty mind-boggling thing. I'm simultaneously flattered and flabbergasted.

I started blogging back in January 2003 for several reasons. Some of them were personal: I was an editorialist at many stops in my professional career, and blogging offered a way to satisfy that particular kind of writing urge. Some of them were professional: I thought the blog would be a good way to build an audience for my work; and in that regard, it's been a big success.

But most of all I was motivated to blog because I recognized a real information gap in much of what was available through mainstream media, especially regarding stories that I believed were of real significance to understanding our national political and cultural scene.

A lot of that recognition stemmed from years of working in mainstream newsrooms as both an editor and reporter. Nearly all of us who have been there know that there are gaps in what we cover, much of it out of the necessities of simply doing our daily jobs of getting basic information out to the public. In many regards, those gaps tended to reflect the priorities created by our superiors, whose perspectives on what was important often were at wide variance with those of the people doing the work on the ground.

Much of this occurred in an environment in which, beginning in the late 1970s and accelerating in the '80s and '90s, corporatization was transforming the media. Small and large community newspapers and TV stations, independently owned, were being snapped up by big chains, who demanded 15 percent annual profits or higher from their new properties. At small outlets, this transformed news operations into skeleton crews scarcely capable of covering cops, courts, and city hall.

Larger papers and stations similarly had to scale back to meet profit demands, which in the initial stages meant that consumer and investigative reporting were the first sacrifices to the budget gods. In the latter stages, newsgathering capacity, particularly on bigger issues, became almost as limited as that seen at smaller papers.

This meant that not only was there less journalism specifically aimed at the public's well-being, but what had once been a relatively robust pool providing a real diversity of journalistic voices was shrunken dramatically. The larger effect was that there were a lot of stories that went uncovered -- information that was not making its way to the surface.

Similarly, the kinds of publishers, editors, and station managers we saw being promoted to leadership positions were no longer diverse, nor (even more significantly) nearly so idealistic. Typically they were bottom-line oriented people and conservative, both journalistically and politically. People who saw eye-to-eye with the conservative bosses who predominated at the tops of the chains.

My own experience of the chain newspaper business was that there was a real "yes man" mentality that drove the newsrooms. The bosses became more preoccupied with meeting corporate goals than with producing good journalism.

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. As Lance Mannion put it last summer:
The fact is that "real journalists" like Cohen have stopped seeing themselves as helping citizens take part in the running of their own government. They see themselves as being part of a decision-making process that actually excludes citizens.

It is not the business of readers---that is citizens---to question what is in the papers and on TV. It is their place to accept what the old media types tell them.

The old media types want to be the last word.

Blogging bothers them because its existence and growing popularity proves that the old media don't have the last word.

They never had it.

There is no last word. The debate is forever. As long as we live in a democracy, there will be no last word, nobody gets the final say.

The problem for "traditional" journalists is that the entire communications model upon which modern mass media has been predicated is rapidly becoming outdated, rendered obsolete by the open nature of the Internet. The model itself was founded in early 20th-century communications studies, in particular the work of the pioneering communications theorists Harold Lasswell and Walter Lippmann. It was Laswell and Lippmann, for instance, who gave us the standard adage taught in every journalism school, representing the basis of all mass communications: "Who (says) What (to) Whom (in) What Channel (with) What Effect."

But the worldview under which Laswell and Lippmann formed their theories was also profoundly elitist in nature. Christopher Simpson, in his 1996 study Science of Coercion: Communication Research and Psychological Warfare, 1945-1960, explained this in detail:
Lippmann and Lasswell articulated a very narrow vision that substituted, for communication as such, one manifestation of communication that is particularly pronounced in hierarchical industrial states. Put most bluntly, they contended that communication's essence was its utility as an instrument for imposing one's will on others, and preferably on masses of others. This instrumentalist conception of communication was consistent with their experience of war and with emerging mass communication technologies of the day, which in turn reflected and to an extent embodied the existing social order.

This view of communication as domination has in fact become a central component of communications theory in American academia, and has become woven into the very fabric of modern consumer society. As Simpson explains [p. 20]:
The mainstream paradigm of communication studies in the United States -- its techniques, body of knowledge, institutional structure, and so on -- evolved symbiotically with modern consumer society generally, and particularly with media industries and those segments of the economy most dependent on mass markets. Communication research in America has historically proved itself by going beyond simply observing media behavior to finding ways to grease the skids for absorption and suppression of rival visions of communication and social order.

Clearly, social communication necessarily involves a balancing of conflicting forces. A "community", after all, cannot exist without some form of social order; or, put another way, order defines the possible means of sharing burdens. Lasswell and Lippmann, however, advocated not just order in an abstract sense, but rather a particular social order in the United States and the world in which forceful elites necessarily ruled in the interests of their vision of the greater good. U.S.-style consumer democracy was simply a relatively benign system for engineering mass consent for the elites' authority; it could be dispensed with then ordinary people reached the "wrong" conclusions. Lasswell writes that the spread of literacy

did not release the masses from ignorance and superstition but altered the nature of both and compelled the development of a whole new technique of control, largely through propaganda ... [A propagandist's] regard for men rests on no democratic dogmatisms about men being the best judge of their own interests. The modern propagandist, like the modern psychologist, recognizes that men are often poor judges of their own interests ... [Those with power must cultivate] senstiveness to those concentrations of motive which are implicit and available for rapid mobilization when the appropriate symbol is offered ... [The propagandist is] no phrasemonger but a promoter of overt acts.

This top-down, elitist view of the role of communication as a means to control and dominate the masses was at the core of the development of modern mass media, and remains the operative model at work in the corporate "mainstream media." Most working journalists operate under its predicates, and news-operation leaders -- editors, publishers, news directors and station managers -- absolutely depend upon it. Blogs, which are much closer to a "person to person" model of communication than the Lippmann/Lasswell version, are profoundly disorienting to such professionals.

However, bloggers are not journalists, in the professional-craft sense, despite various claims to such status by some bloggers. At times, they may actually engage in reporting work (Josh Marshall particularly comes to mind), but this is something of a rarity. Besides, we bloggers who are journalists too know that it essentially represents a kind of publishing without an editor -- which is both part of the pleasure of it (I certainly can't imagine any editor ever approving any of my disquisitions on fascism) and its danger (I think regular readers of my verbose posts would tell you I could use a good editor; and then there are the mistakes that are inevitable when you work without a backstop).

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.

Now, as a longtime mainstream-media editor myself, I was also acutely aware of the holes in coverage provided by corporate news. So blogging, in essence, gave me the opportunity to fill those gaps in a small way by creating an outlet, as it were, for reporting on the subjects that I have long felt are important and overlooked by mainstream media. It gave me the opportunity to be my own editor, prioritizing stories by my own standards, and opening the way for reportage and analysis I'd never be able to do in a mainstream organ.

Obviously, the role of right-wing extremism in modern American politics, in my opinion, is one of those continuing stories that is consistently underreported by the corporate media, for a complex panoply of reasons. I also happen to be well networked in obtaining information on the subject. So naturally, Orcinus has tended to focus on being an outlet for that information.

Along the way, I've tried to write about other stories that have gone similarly ignored by the corporate media: George W. Bush's military record, the mendacity of right-wing pundits, the virulent eliminationism of so much right-wing rhetoric (though obviously this latter is at least somewhat related to the main subject), the assault on the environment by the corporate right, and, of course, killer whales.

But maintaining a blog for three years does have, as Digby observed a little while ago, something of a Bataan Death March quality to it. I've really only been able to keep it going this long by keeping myself true to my original reasons for blogging in the first place: I use it to work out writing ideas, and to disseminate information that I think is falling through the cracks and needs reporting.

My traffic has tapered off a bit over the past year or so, and I suspect it's because readers find the subject of right-wing extremism and its attendant hatefulness so wearing (I've seen some readers describe it as "depressing"). Certainly, it is wearing to report on it; after more than a decade at it, can't say I enjoy it much. But it remains, I think, important information, and that's why I keep plugging away at it.

In the meantime, you'll have to forgive me if I continue to post unpredictably on various odd topics that may not seem much connected to the far right, but which I also have some background reporting in: orca preservation and environmental issues, immigration issues, the Japanese American internment, maybe even Japanese anime. It's all part of what I do, not to mention that it helps me keep my sanity.

Last year I held a fund-raiser for Orcinus that, while hardly paying for my time investment, was extremely rewarding in showing me how much my regular readers appreciate what I do. Its final tally was just over $3,000, and I heard from a lot of folks, not to mention that I got great links urging contributions from such fine folks as Digby, TBogg, Michael Berube and Jesus' General. Of course, me being the lout that I am, I neglected to thank any of them until now.

So, thanks, everyone. And if you're going to their sites, be sure to toss them a few nickels too.

I'll be running another fund-raiser again this week, but it'll be a little more low-keyed. If you, too, appreciate what I'm doing at Orcinus, and want to support the continued flow of the kind of information I report here, please chip in accordingly. Hit the PayPal button in the upper corner (or, if you need to use snail mail, send it to me at P.O. Box 17872, Seattle WA 98107).

Think of it as a kind of open subscription -- and I'm your humble editor.

No comments: