Monday, June 26, 2006

An open letter to my fellow journalists

Look, I know a lot of you look upon bloggers with a great deal of suspicion because it seems like many of them are eager to displace our positions as public scribes and the arbiters of public discourse.

I understand a little of the resentment. A lot of bloggers seem to want to take short-cuts, touting information without double-checking it first. They want to claim they do what we do, but they don't adhere to basic journalistic rules at times. It feels like they haven't paid their journalistic dues.

Some of it also has to do with the realization, I think, that most bloggers are also our most avid consumers; they're the people who actually read what we write. There are fewer and fewer of them these days, and so we ought to appreciate their input.

But it turns out that our readers aren't the docile recipients of our collected wisdom that we long assumed they were. It turns out that they examine what we write critically, and now are capable of letting us know it; sometimes even rudely so. Who'da thunk?

There's good reason to be disquieted, because the ground is literally shifting under our feet; and while it's tempting to stand your ground, it's smarter to be nimble. As I've argued before, the old, elitist model of top-down communications is breaking down before our eyes, and it's happening at a fortuitous time: just as that old model is creaking toward its anti-democratic apotheosis.

Instead of fearing it, though, journalists -- real journalists, who eschew ideology for truth and humanity -- should be welcoming it. I grew up in an era when journalists' credo was to "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted," and while that may seem presumptuous (and maybe even wrong-headed) now, it had a human quality to it that is lacking in so much of our current journalism.

The Cursor Manifesto has it just about right:
We believe that the tired old saw about the journalist¹s responsibility being to "Afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted," is increasingly irrelevant when members of the media are so often accorded a celebrity status that places them in the upper echelons of the comfortable; and where what is passed off as comfort is too often purely manipulative and exploitative and what passes for affliction is usually little more than the sniping of dimwits and morons.

Nonetheless, I grew up in newspapering believing that we played a critical role in the functioning of a democratic society, because we were the source of so much public information and, in many ways, guided the public discourse.

I don't believe that has changed. What has changed is how well we live up that responsibility.

This is the main reason that I, for one, welcome the breakdown of the old model, though that's hardly a surprise, since for the past three and a half years I've been over here on the dark side, busily blogging away while publishing relatively little in the way of regular journalism during that time. I'm now officially one of them.

But remember that it wasn't so long ago that I was one of you -- just another newsroom schmoo trying to do his job and swim in currents that often seem counter to everything we've been taught that journalism is about. I edited copy, wrote headlines, laid out pages, set news budgets, met deadlines, tried to do reporting that made a difference. The things we all do at one time or another.

All that really changed for me was that I decided to take a hiatus from my newsroom work and become a stay-at-home father. The original plan was to build up a nice freelance clientele before the baby was born so that I could work from home after she was born. Seemed to be working, too; I was writing for Salon and stringing for the Washington Post and building a nice list of clients.

But then my daughter was born and it all went out the window; I discovered that it's impossible to juggle feeding and nap schedules along with interviews and story deadlines. So after a few months, I decided to switch to focusing on writing books, which I could do in the evenings and on weekends and in whatever snatches of free time I could manage.

As it happened, I also discovered in due time that I could blog with that kind of schedule too. And I was entranced with the idea of blogging, especially since it could provide an outlet for writing about subjects that I'd found most editors were too reluctant to tackle.

But working outside of a newsroom, for the first time, I began to realize just how timid most of us had become in the past decade, especially when it came to dealing with the American right. I had been disturbed, during the run-up to Clinton's impeachment and then in its aftermath, by the press' abject willingness to present conservative propaganda as factual -- just the "other side" of the story -- even when it was plainly, and often outrageously, false. And it came home during the 2000 election campaign, when the press clearly aligned itself behind George W. Bush and the Republicans. As I noted in a piece for about the myths regarding Al Gore:
Combined with the evolution of the "Liar Al" story and the rise of plainly right-biased news organizations like Fox News and the Washington Times, the evidence suggests that many newsrooms have responded to the charges of a "liberal" bias by instituting a de facto conservative bias. But the problem with either bias is that it overlooks factuality -- the basis of all credible journalism -- in the pursuit of partisan agendas. Stories become highly selective prosecutions instead of thorough and balanced news accounts.

The "liberal media bias" charge played a fundamental role in transforming American newsrooms, at a time when most were already facing shrinking budgets and tighter newsholes. What was most disappointing, really, was the way that the people running those newsrooms failed to realize that they were being played for fools the whole time.

It was more than apparent to many of us that the charge of "liberal media bias" was being made by people for whom any deviation from their political agenda constituted "liberalism" -- including simple critiques that demonstrated the factual falsity of their claims. Yet pieces like my analysis of the media storyline about Al Gore were generally ignored; writers who undermined the accepted script were treated as though we were the ones with a bias problem.

Conservatives, as their own work has made plain, have no interest in facts if they run counter to their own arguments; their idea of "journalism" is simply right-wing propaganda, pure and simple. Anything else is evidence of "liberal bias." This tendency to ignore and occlude opposing arguments reveals an important trait in the ideological makeup of movement conservatives: they assume that because their own approach to "journalism" is so grotesquely unbalanced that, of course, everyone else must operate the same way too. They can't understand journalistic balance because they're to busy projecting their own ideological bias onto everyone else.

In the ensuing years, the substitute conservative bias has become virtually institutionalized, a major cog in the always-churning right-wing propaganda machine. As Eric Boehlert explains in his marvelous new book, Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush ), in describing the relentless "press haters" who trot out a ceaseless parade of right-wing propaganda disguised as media criticism [p. 98]:
The new generation, often peddling questionable "evidence" of liberal bias and with disregard for the facts, has no interest in simply "working the refs"; trying to get journalists to think twice next time they have to make a tough newsroom call on a sensitive political story. Press haters want to mug the refs, drag them in the alley and pummel them. Al Gore called the haters "digital brownshirts," on orders "to harass and hector any journalist who is critical of the President." Indeed, the press haters don't simply portray offending journalists as misguided or deceitful. They hold up MSM members of objects of scorn and vilify them as unpatriotic, or even treasonous.

I've spent the last couple of weeks reading Lapdogs carefully, and I think every working journalist, regardless of their political skew, ought to as well. Because it is a damning compilation of a reality that professionals in the press are now coming around to comprehending: Since George W. Bush's election campaign began, and even before, the press has utterly failed to live up to its responsibility to accurately and aggressively keep the public informed on the government and its actions.

Nearly any chapter alone stands as a sufficient indictment, but Chapter 6, "First Lieutenant Bush," has a special resonance for me, because it details the utter failure of the press to adequately examine Bush's military record, even as it simultaneously played up and treated credibly the laughably afactual Swift Boat Veterans attack on John Kerry. (Boehlert's reportage on the matter for Salon was first-rate as well.)

I became aware of the Bush-AWOL story back in the summer of 2000 and, having checked it out and concluded there was a there there, brought it to the attention of the editors at in October -- but was told that, because it was so late in coming out, there was no interest in pursuing it.

Once I started up my blog, however, and was free from those constraints, I began publishing info about the matter as early as summer of 2003. The story picked up steam in January 2004, thanks to Michael Moore's controversial description of Bush as a "deserter." As it rolled along, I continued to post on it (here, here, here, here, here, and here, just for a sampling). And I was stunned to watch as the press ran away from it after the notorious CBS documents poisoned the well -- even though, as Boehlert puts it [p. 155]:
Not one of the key facts, all established thourgh Bush's own military records, were altered by CBS's botched National Guard report. But the MSM, having already displayed little initiative on the story, took the 2004 CBS controversy as confirmation that they had been right in 2000 to wave off the issue of Bush's Guard duty; that there was nothing there. Spooked by the angry conservative mob assembled online and that had been taking aim at CBS and its anchor Dan Rather, the MSM in 2004 quickly sprinted away from questions about Bush's service and focused its attention solely on CBS's sins.

This wasn't the only story I pursued, as a blogger, critical of key figures on the right, and the conservative movement generally. Probably above all, I also have continually reported on the ways right-wing extremism has been insinuating itself in the mainstream through movement conservatism. These efforts have been well-received in the blogosphere, but have been largely ignored elsewhere, which doesn't surprise me in the least; it is, after all, a sensitive and difficult subject, and broaching it in the current media environment is akin to dropping a turd into the punchbowl. I wrote about it for my blog precisely because I knew the mainstream press was too timid to consider approaching it.

My perspective in doing this, all along, has been a reporter's; I've simply been honestly trying to report what I know and what I observe as an eyewitness to events. My experience with right-wing extremists of the militia/Patriot movement in the 1990s -- I interviewed large numbers of them and spent a lot of time among them -- lent me a particular insight about their nature, namely, that the stereotype of them as mouth-breathing louts is grossly out of whack with the reality. Most of them lead seemingly normal lives, are well-educated, have thoroughly thought-out belief systems, and are not likely to stand out at a Wal-Mart.

Perhaps more to the point, I also could see, even in the 1990s, that the difference between them and any number of fire-breathing movement conservatives was in many ways only a difference of degree and, perhaps, honesty (that is, the "extremists" were actually more honest in that they were willing to express openly what many supposedly mainstream right-wingers will say privately). And, as we progressed through the Bush election and 9/11 and the Iraq invasion, it became clear to me that those differences were gradually vanishing. So I wrote about it.

Of course, for these efforts I think I've been somewhat marginalized outside of the blogosphere. My term as a stay-at-home dad is ending this autumn, and I've been putting out feelers for newsroom work in preparation, and so far it's been largely a cold shoulder. It seems being labeled a barking moonbat is a bad career move.

What I hear from the right, a lot, is that I'm a conspiracy theorist -- which is kind of ironic, since I devoted so much of my time in the 1990s to examining, and largely debunking, a large number of conspiracy theories, and I understand their nature a little better than most. More to the point, what I posit in my arguments is not the existence of anything like a conspiracy; rather, what I'm arguing from is a normative understanding of the way ideas migrate among political sectors.

Still, I knew that this was a likelihood when I embarked on this adventure, though, and I have no regrets about it. I knew back in 2000 that being accused of "liberal" bias was more an indication of effectiveness in confronting the endless stream of afactual propaganda that was the right's most effective weapon in it assault on journalistic integrity. Today -- even though, as I've explained before, I'm truthfully more conservative than most of my readers suspect -- I proudly wear the label of "liberal". Go ahead, call me a moonbat. It just means I'm still doing my job.

You know, one of those other hoary old journalistic adages I've always tried to adhere to is Lars-Erik Nelson's warning:
"The enemy isn't conservatism. The enemy isn't liberalism. The enemy is bullshit."

At some point, journalists are going to have to come to terms with the reality that the bullshit, in the past 10 years and more, has not been an even-steven thing, where liberals are just as prone to it as conservatives -- though most "fair and balanced" journalists like to pretend that this is so.

No, the reality is that in that time, the levels of unmitigated bullshit flowing from the many founts of, er, wisdom on the right has been ceaseless, programmatic, and deliberately aimed at overwhelming the press. That's not to say that the left doesn't peddle bullshit still, nor that every jot and tittle emanating from the right is a falsehoood. But the proportionate level of bullshit from the right is so overwhelming as to render any quibbles almost negligible.

The press is drowning in it, as Lapdogs demonstrates on every page. And the blogosphere, believe it or not, has the potential to be a lifeline.

If reporters can overcome their initial defensiveness, they will discover that bloggers' critiques can actually be helpful and insightful. Perhaps more to the point, they'll discover that there is a wealth of real information available on blogs that often was tucked away into obscure corners, particularly expertise from the likes of Juan Cole and P.Z. Myers.

Cultivating a working relationship with bloggers, instead of viewing them as adversaries, would be in every journalist's best interests. They can be useful resources as sounding boards, and they can also be helpful in disseminating those news bits that don't quite make it into your stories.

We'll see, over the coming year, whether or not I wind up rejoining your ranks. Even if I don't, I'm still holding out hope that there are still enough of you out there who remember what journalism is supposed to be about. People who have had enough, have seen the credibility of their industry reach record lows, and want to do something about it. People ready to stand up, call bullshit what it is and damn the consequences.

In the end, it's what this work has always been about. Time to get back to it.

[Be sure to check out the excellent discussions of Lapdogs at Firedoglake, including last week's installment from Peter Daou, and this week's from Jane Hamsher, for which Boehlert himself showed up.]

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