Are Bloggers Gentlemen?

During the Democratic Convention there was a mini-controversy about whether bloggers are real journalists or not. Today Paul Krugman gave his own answer to this question, by recommending that his fellow journalists start reading David Brock’s Media Matters, The Columbia Journalism Review’s Campaign Desk, and especially Bob Somerby’s Daily Howler.

Krugman gave special attention to Somerby’s belief that political journalists are “writing to a script” — deciding on their story in advance, and then selecting or twisting the facts to fit the script, while suppressing the facts that contradict it. By citing Somerby’s blog, Krugman effectively destroys the most serious single objection to blogdom. For while it is indeed true that bloggers don’t have factcheckers or editors, the big media don’t factcheck any more either. As a result, that job is left to bloggers, and Somerby is the best of the best. In short, the blog critics are 180 degrees off. It’s the legit media that needs to clean up its act.

So why do people say such mean things about bloggers?

Well, it’s like a Jane Austen novel. Bloggers are not gentlemen, and our social status is uncertain — perhaps we are cads and bounders. The print journalists, on the other hand (including the ladies, God bless them!) are gentlemen. They have institutional connections and get paid, while we’re all still in the “Who the hell does he think he is?” category.

Because of their institutional connections, legit journalists have come to believe that they are authorities and kingmakers, and that the rest of us are laymen whose opinion is of no real importance. They are professionals in their own minds, and they believe that they have no more need to listen to the criticisms of amateurs than physicists or mathematicians do.

The odd thing is that an unfortunate professional inversion has taken place. At the very moment when journalists achieved their quasi-professional status, their work began to degenerate and become less professional. Because “professionalism” now means (rather than following professional standards) the possession of authority, and being part of an in-group, and being a loyal member of a powerful team which begins with the beat reporters at the bottom, and goes on past the byline reporters and columnists and the editors and publishers all the way up to the highest government officials.

That’s the significance of all the cute little nicknames and jokes Bush has for media people. It’s like he’s telling him that they’re now low-ranking members of the same powerful fraternity he is, and that he’s going to haze them a bit but they’re really part of the gang — as long as they act right. (Doonesbury’s Garry Trudeau, who knew Bush backin in the day, says that he has “the soul of a rush chairman“).

And the ones lower down on the food chain have learned that the only way to be successful is to please the ones above them. Journalistic success is defined by promotions and pay, and promotion is decided by agreeing with the boss — which includes slanting or suppressing stories . There is plenty of evidence that professional standards have been weakened, and this is because most media outlets have fallen into the hands of ideologues and financiers. The big decisions are increasingly made for purposes of ideology or marketing or for other non-professional, non-journalistic reasons.

But alas for the “pros”! Right at the moment we’re going through another one of those McLuhanesque media revolutions. Anyone who cares can now check up on the big names and find out how good or bad a job they’re doing. Blog readership is not numerically great, but it’s high quality, and the media clowns are increasingly finding themselves being held in justified contempt by many of their best informed readers. It’s got to be taking a lot of fun out of it for them.

“Who are these guys?” Well, we’re citizens using a new medium. The best comparison is with the eighteenth-century pamphleteers who used the newfangled printing presses to topple the Ancien Regime or George III. Or maybe I’m just being optimistic.

Are Bloggers Gentleman? (version 1.0)

A young blogger becomes a gentleman and forgets his old friends

Grumpy blogger response

George IV is worse than George III

P.S. Almost nobody has recognized so far that blog journalism is, in one key sense, superior to print journalism. Bloggers can give supporting citations to the reader directly, with links which are immediately checkable. In order to check up on a print journalist (much less a TV newsman), you have to go to the library and dig around, and enough journalists get caught misusing citations that you can be sure that a lot of them get away with it. Somerby makes my case for me: not only does he link everything, but his whole site back several years is a searchable database. Kit Seelye, Chris Matthews, Bill O’Reilly — you’ve got them right there at your fingertips. Somerby is able to back up everything he says in a way that print journalists cannot, and within the range of his specific interests he’s the go-to guy.

P.P.S. Probably the reason Krugman is able to accept Somerby is that Krugman isn’t really a journalist — he’s really a Ph.D. professor at a top university. The status “journalist” isn’t really a very lofty one, but if it’s all he’s got, a dog will fight to the death for a dry, smelly bone.

P.P.P.S. It should be said that bloggers almost never do the kinds of detailed investigation that real reporters do. We can fact-check and critique real reporting, but few of us really do any. On the other hand, dozens of bloggers can bloviate as well as David Broder by now.

(Extensively edited and rewritten, 9:00 p.m. August 4. My imaginary editor didn’t feel like coming in today).