Tilting at Blog Windmills

I've been meaning to write something about the latest blog-bashing from the keyboard of Columbia J-school dean Nicholas Lemann but haven't had the time. Thankfully, New York Press's Russ Smith and my friend Bob Cox have taken care of the task for me. Before quoting from them, here's a taste of Lemann's sour grapes, actually saying that the legacy media never have been elitist and, in fact, are reflective of the average American:

American journalism began, roughly speaking, on the later Stuart Britain model; during Colonial times it was dominated by fiery political speechmakers, like Thomas Paine. All those uplifting statements by the Founders about freedom of the press were almost certainly produced with pamphleteers in mind. When, in the early nineteenth century, political parties and fast cylinder printing presses developed, American journalism became mainly a branch of the party system, with very little pretense to neutral authority or ownership of the facts.

A related development was the sensational penny press, which served the big cities, whose populations were swollen with immigrants from rural America and abroad. It produced powerful local newspapers, but it’s hard to think of them as fitting the priesthood model. William Randolph Hearst’s New York papers, the leading examples, were flamboyant, populist, opinionated, and thoroughly disreputable. They influenced politics, but that is different from saying, as Glenn Reynolds says of the Hearst papers, that they “set the agenda for public discussion.” Most of the formal means of generating information that are familiar in America today—objective journalism is only one; others are modern academic research, professional licensing, and think tanks—were created, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, explicitly to counter the populist inclinations of various institutions, one of which was the big media.

In fact, what the prophets of Internet journalism believe themselves to be fighting against—journalism in the hands of an enthroned few, who speak in a voice of phony, unearned authority to the passive masses—is, as a historical phenomenon, mainly a straw man. Even after the Second World War, some American cities still had several furiously battling papers, on the model of “The Front Page.” There were always small political magazines of all persuasions, and books written in the spirit of the old pamphlets, and, later in the twentieth century, alternative weeklies and dissenting journalists like I. F. Stone. When journalism was at its most blandly authoritative—probably in the period when the three television broadcast networks were in their heyday and local newspaper monopoly was beginning to become the rule—so were American politics and culture, and you have to be very media-centric to believe that the press established the tone of national life rather than vice versa.
There's lots more at the link if you feel like slogging through Lemann's run-on sentences and constipated pomposity. I'll spare the non-masochists out there by moving on to Cox's response:
This is the fourth time I've "encountered" Lemann and, so far, I have found him to be little more than a Luddite with an Ivy-encrusted Chair - someone who ought to be dismissed out of hand on the topic of citizen journalism.
He is an agenda-driven hack who tips his hand in his most recent diatribe when he writes "Journalism is not in a period of maximal self-confidence right now, and the Internet’s cheerleaders are practically laboratory specimens of maximal self-confidence. They have got the rhetorical upper hand; traditional journalists answering their challenges often sound either clueless or cowed and apologetic."
Overall, Lemann offers up a sad attempt by a high priest of the "legacy media" to take back the rhetorical battlefield by denigrating any and all efforts to advance a concept of journalism without a priesthood while claiming there is no such priesthood and rallying the "faithful". [...]

What jumps out at me in reading his piece, is that Lemann is in such a great position to be a force for good in the development of citizen journalism and instead uses his bully pulpit to find fault and tear down. It is a testament to the potential for small-mindedness among those entrusted with a great responsibility, serving as Dean for one of the leading journalism schools in the world.
My experience with Lemann came at a special screening of George Clooney's Good Night and Good Luck last fall. After the film Lemann made a little speech which conflated his reaction to a New York Times column by John Tierney which took issue with the liberal bent of J-school profs and those bloggers who label the media as "MSM" (i.e., conservative bloggers who believe the media is biased to the left). He then asked for questions for the panel which he would repeat into his microphone so the question could be picked up on the video tape that was being made of the event.
You can read all about it in my post from that night - Good Night, Good Luck and Good Riddance.
As you will see if you watch the video in the post I've linked, after attacking conservative bloggers he REFUSED to address my question to the panel, instead repeatedly demanding that I "justify" the premise of my question (something he failed to demand of any other audience member).
Smith's response:
There’s a case to be made that the Internet is clogged with far too many delusional blowhards who really believe that their blogs are irrevocably altering the media landscape, but Lemann didn’t make it. Instead, perhaps trying to defend a profession, his profession, that’s been forced to adapt to new technology, Lemann criticized, in a typically condescending way, the men and women who really have made a “positive” and “affirmative” contribution to politics and popular culture.

It’s Lemann, however, who isn’t up to the challenge of making a cogent argument about the influence and potential power of the bloggers. It’s inconceivable, for example, that the dean of a journalism school and New Yorker staff writer could write a lengthy article about the web and not once mention the name of Matt Drudge. Even Frank Rich, who until a few years ago dismissed Drudge, the true pioneer of Internet power, as a “cyber gossip,” now refers to him less derisively. It could be Lemann’s in a cocoon of self-denial—even in the post-William Shawn era of The New Yorker—but it’s hard to fathom that he doesn’t realize his peers, the “professional” journalists, log onto Drudge daily.

In addition, another site that’s now a regular online stop for not only journalists—professional or amateur—but political enthusiasts and politicians as well, is Real Clear Politics, which provides a daily and non-partisan compendium of articles printed in leading newspapers and magazines, along with a comprehensive list of polling results, talk show transcripts, links and its own RCP blog, which, like the entrepreneurs who run the site, John McIntyre and Tom Bevan, tilts conservative.

In an attempt to debunk Internet journalism, Lemann compares this recent phenomenon to over 100 years ago when tabloid king William Randolph Hearst sold millions of newspapers every day. He doesn’t resort to the cliché “yellow journalism,” but it’s a reasonable guess that was his thought.

The following excerpt from “Amateur Hour” seals the case that Lemann was ill-equipped to take on Kos or Reynolds. “Most of the formal means of generating information that are familiar in America today—objective journalism is only one; others are modern academic research, professional licensing, and think tanks—were created, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, explicitly to counter the populist inclinations of various institutions, one of which was the big media.”

Does Lemann really think that “objective journalism” exists today? If so, he really ought to be steered away from writing about the media by New Yorker editor David Remnick. One need only to look at the front-page articles in The New York Times—Adam Nagourney, who doesn’t hide his preference for Democrats, is just the most egregious example—to see that this isn’t true. Ditto for the Washington Times’ Donald Lambro, who might be the only journalist today who thinks the Republicans might not lose Congressional seats this November, or the Associated Press, a once reputable news agency that lost its currency years ago. And let’s not even get into the bias of the British travesty known as Reuters.

Lemann does cite the blogosphere’s role in exposing Dan Rather’s bogus story on 60 Minutes in 2004 about President Bush’s National Guard Service, but it’s a glancing (and bitter) mention that understates the profound influence it had on John Kerry’s election chances. As I said, there’s a lot of bluster, wacky conspiracy theories, and ugly racial slurs (Maryland’s U.S. Senate candidate Michael Steele, a decent and bright man who’s been slimed by some bloggers for committing the sin of being a black Republican, is one prime example), to be found on the Internet, but the entire media industry has benefited from the likes of Reynolds and Kos, even if it means that the influence, and perhaps jobs, of Lemann’s dinner companions have suffered as a result.

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Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013