Monday, December 03, 2007

What Impressed Me This Week: Why Bloggers Resent Journalists

Only the supremely wise and the abysmally ignorant do not change. -- Confucius

Mainstream Media: Not Liberal, Not Objective
It's an article of faith among right-wingers that the mainstream media has a left-wing bias. And it's an article of faith among mainstream journalists that bloggers (left and right alike) criticize them because they're objective. We're partisan, they're not, so we don't like them.

If only. This week gave us examples of liberals getting slammed in two egregiously bad articles by once-proud journalistic institutions: The Washington Post and Time Magazine.

On the front page of Thursday's Post was Foes Use Obama's Muslim Ties to Fuel Rumors About Him. You really should click the link and read the story, because it's hard to capture in a few quotes just how bad it is. The article contains no actual news. Instead, it passes on the unfounded rumor that Barack Obama is secretly a Muslim, lets people from the Obama camp deny it, and gives poll results to indicate how bad it would be for Obama if people believed the rumor. (No wonder he denies it.) If you hadn't heard the rumor before, the Post makes sure you know it now. And if you had heard it, the Post tells you nothing new. (CBS then compounded the problem by quoting the Post in an Obama Dogged By Muslim Rumors article.)

Not only doesn't the Post article add anything new to the story, it doesn't even summarize what is already known: Back in January, CNN sent someone to the "madrassa" school that Obama is supposed to have attended when he was growing up in Indonesia, and they discovered that it isn't a madrassa at all. In other words, rather than just spread gossip CNN did some actual investigating, disproved one of the rumor's main checkable details, and said so. Ten months ago.

Here's what would have been front-page news: The Post might have figured out who has been spreading this smear and traced a connection to some other campaign. Or, on the other hand, they might have uncovered some fact to give the rumor credence. Maybe they could have caught Obama on a prayer rug facing Mecca or fasting during Ramadan or something. Either way, it would be journalism. But it also would be work, and who wants to do that? Not The Washington Post. No wonder Columbia Journalism Review concluded:
This pathetic story has no place on the front page—or any page—of a paper like the Post. If a worse campaign-related story comes out this year, we don’t want to see it.
And then The Post dug in its heels and refused to admit it did anything wrong: The real problem is blogger outrage, not anything the Post did. (Their cartoonist Tom Toles, though, seems to get the point.)

The same pattern of laziness compounded by stubbornness showed up at Time. And again, it all goes to the disadvantage of Democrats. In a column titled Tone Deaf Democrats Time's columnist Joe Klein used the House's version of the proposed FISA bill as an example of how the Democrats in Congress were being "foolishly partisan" and letting civil liberties get in the way of defending the country. (The link is to the "corrected" version of the column, not the version that went out in the print magazine.) The Democrats' bill, Klein said "would require the surveillance of every foreign-terrorist target's calls to be approved by the FISA court," which in effect "would give [foreign] terrorists the same legal protections as Americans."

Only one small problem: Klein didn't read the bill. His impression of what it said came from Republican Congressman Pete Hoekstra, and Klein repeated the Republican spin as fact without checking. Glenn Greenwald, who writes every day rather than doing weekly columns, checked. The bill actually says the exact opposite. In English.
Sec. 105A. (a) Foreign to Foreign Communications- (1) IN GENERAL - Notwithstanding any other provision of this Act, a court order is not required for electronic surveillance directed at the acquisition of the contents of any communication between persons that are not known to be United States persons and are reasonably believed to be located outside the United States for the purpose of collecting foreign intelligence information
OK, that's bad, but we all make mistakes. Klein then produced a series of pathetic responses on Time's Swampland blog. First he tried to claim he was really right (without mentioning Glenn or anyone else who said he was wrong or what exactly the criticism was). Then he said the bill could be interpreted a lot of different ways. Then he said it didn't matter, because the bill would never become law anyway. And then he said -- and this is not out of context -- "I have neither the time nor legal background to figure out who's right." That would be work, I suppose, and work gets in the way of a superstar journalist lifestyle.

Time as an institution did no better. Eventually Time acknowledged Klein had made a mistake, but the mistake (which has been fixed in the "corrected" online column) is that Klein should have balanced the Republican spin with a Democratic denial, making the whole thing a he-said/she-said article. (Kind of like the Post's Obama-Muslim piece.) This apparently is what Time believes journalism is: You write down what people tell you. "Balanced" journalism is writing down what people on both sides tell you. (And balance is the key thing: That's why Time balances a "liberal" columnist like Klein with conservatives like Charles Krauthammer.)

Just to balance this report, I should point out that some people believe in a thing called "reality," and even think that reporters should check people's statements against this "reality" before reporting them. But I have neither the time nor the philosophical background to figure out if they're right.

This story has been banging around in the blogosphere all week. Glenn writes about it in a bunch of articles. My favorite is here. Kos chimes in here. Just about every major liberal blogger commented on it somewhere. Satirist Jon Smith draws the appropriate conclusions in Journalism 101. His second rule of journalism is: "There are two sides to every story and a journalist must give both sides equal weight even if he or she knows one side is completely false."

So anyway, that's what the "liberal" and "objective" media has been up to this week. Mainstream journalists never seem to catch on to the real reason bloggers don't like them. It's not ideological, it's personal: Many bloggers have comparatively few readers and work very hard for them. So when journalists with millions of readers are incredibly lazy, it stirs up resentment.

America's Changing Image in the World
I guess you can't go fascist and expect no one to notice. That's the lesson I draw from the following two stories.

Thursday, a Canadian court invalidated a three-year-old agreement between Canada and the US about how refugees are handled. To make a long story short: If you're a refugee from country X who shows up in Chicago and then later claims asylum in Montreal, the Canadians will send your asylum case back to Chicago. And vice versa.

The judge threw that agreement out because he ruled that the US is no longer a safe country to return refugees to. The agreement, he claims, is predicated on prior treaties like the Convention Against Torture, which the US is violating. We say we're not violating it, of course, but we're not fooling anybody. The judge noted the case of Maher Arar, a Canadian citizen who we kidnapped while he was changing planes in New York and sent to Syria to be tortured. He turned out to be innocent.

Meanwhile, according to Sunday's Times of London, the US government has argued before a Court of Appeals in the UK that we have the right to kidnap British citizens wanted for crimes in the US. Naturally, we'll follow the formal extradition procedures if it suits our purpose and we're feeling nice that week. But because this came up during the extradition hearing of a businessman wanted for bank fraud and tax evasion -- not terrorism -- the Times predicts that this American claim "will alarm the British business community." The article has comments attached to it. Apparently the Times' readers, perhaps under the illusion that they are citizens of a sovereign nation, are ticked.

Sex and the Married Mayor
It's hard to know how to feel about Rudy Giuliani's week. In general I hate sex scandals, because I don't think a person's sex life tells you much about how they'll govern. (You'd think the Clinton/Bush comparison would have laid that argument to rest for good, but apparently not.) A bunch of this isn't new: We already knew Giuliani was having an affair with his current wife while he was still married to his previous wife. And the city was responsible for Giuliani's security when he left town, even for personal reasons. What we're left with is a scandal about accounting: Legitimate security expenses were hidden in odd parts of the city budget, presumably to cover up the affair. If there weren't a sex story in here, nobody would care.

A secondary part of the story is the NYPD providing personal services to Giuliani's mistress (now wife), including walking her dog. Again, as long as he doesn't claim to be the family-values candidate, it doesn't bother me that he had a mistress. But the sense of entitlement here is worrisome. One big problem with the Bush administration is that no one can tell the difference between government employees and political operatives. If Giuliani thinks it's appropriate for the NYPD to be walking dogs for friends of the mayor, that's not likely to change. But again I have to admit that sex is what gives the story legs. If the NYPD were walking dogs for Giuliani's mother, no one would care.

On the other hand, a lot about Giuliani is legitimately disturbing, and it doesn't get much coverage. His actual record around 9-11 was pretty dismal. He cut a good figure on TV, but a lot of firefighters died because the city had screwed up buying their radios. (Apparently the firefighters' radios didn't pick up the order to evacuate the World Trade Center. The police radios did, and they got out.) And the reason he looked so dashing wandering the streets issuing commands was that he had over-ruled the experts who told him not to build his emergency command post inside the WTC. That mistake left him nowhere to go after the towers collapsed.

Finally, Giuliani has all of Bush's character flaws: He surrounds himself with yes-men who maintain his bubble. He never admits a mistake. He gets angry when people question him. He believes in secrecy and executive power rather than consensus building.

So I'm happy to see Giuliani have a bad week, and I'm not going to cry for him if this messes up his candidacy. But when are we going to grow up about sex? (OK, OK, it makes for great humor. Here's Tom Tomorrow's take. And TPM's fake Giuliani ad.)

Short Notes
Speaking of sex, the Idaho Stateman has new evidence that Senator Larry Craig is gay. Color me shocked. (Craig pledges to keep working for the people of Idaho despite these "baseless" accusations. Presumably he thinks a gay senator would be incapacitated in some way.) Given that lying and hypocrisy aren't against the law and the guy's term runs out next year, can't we just agree to ignore him until he goes away?

The Giuliani thing brings this question to mind: How many people in America receive round-the-clock police protection? In view of the occasional assassination attempts, I reluctantly accept the idea that the President has to live in a security bubble. But how many people are we talking about? Governors? The mayor of New York? The mayor's wife and mistress? Are all these people really in danger? (Attention murderers and kidnappers: Mayor Bloomberg's girlfriend isn't protected.)

On the Washington Post/Newsweek "On Faith" site, Eboo Patel makes an important distinction: The really significant "faith divide" isn't between believers and unbelievers, it's between pluralists and totalitarians. "Pluralists are people who want to build societies where people from different backgrounds live in equal dignity and mutual loyalty. Totalitarians are people who want only their group to dominate and everyone else to suffocate."

Rolling Stone has a great article called "How America Lost the War on Drugs". It's a fairly long and detailed history, but it comes down to this: The heart of America's illegal drug problem is that Americans want to take illegal drugs. You can't solve that problem with troops in Columbia or ships in the Caribbean or a big fence along the Mexican border. You can't even solve it by locking up drug dealers in this country, because it's a demand problem, not a supply problem. As long as Americans demand drugs, the market will supply them. (You'd think that would be obvious to free-market conservatives, wouldn't you?) So we've spent about half a trillion dollars and have nothing to show for it. Meanwhile, the focus on "winning" a "war" keeps us from doing simple things that would lessen the problem and mitigate the violence associated with it.

If you want a humorous-but-accurate introduction to the current financial mess and its causes, listen to this fake interview of a London investment banker by the British comedy team Bird and Fortune. It reminds me of some of the interview routines Peter Cook and Dudley Moore did many years ago.

The National Republican Congressional Committee put out a request for amateur attacks ads against the Democratic Congress (with prizes no less), and got five entries -- one of which is a Democratic parody of a Republican attack ad. (It's pretty good.) Bottom-up creativity just doesn't seem to be a workable model on the Right. I wonder why.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So I missed the point of the headline. Why do bloggers resent journalists? Because only the latter are given the benefit of the doubt for professionalism, objectivity and fact checking, even when it isn't warranted? Blogs follow Sturgeon's law that 90% of articles are garbage. But as news editors (selected by partisan publishers) stop doing their job of winnowing that garbage, or even start encouraging it, the distinction between journalism and blogging will disappear. It will only accelerate the death of print journalism and the loss of relevance of TV and radio journalism.

The media infotainment industry is only cutting its own throat (and credibility) with their propaganda. The only question is how low they can drag the USA in their fall before the country wakes up. The answer so far seems to be: pretty low indeed as long as liberals can be made scapegoats for infotainment failures.

1:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Care to compare/contrast the war on drugs to the war on guns?

Supply and demand is . . . well, supply and demand. :-)

2:37 PM  
Blogger Doug Muder said...

I'll combine answers to two comments:

The point of the headline is buried further than it should have been: That people who work hard to do a good job for comparatively few readers (which is the case for a lot of the political bloggers) are bound to resent people who have a huge audience (like the Washington Post and Time) but tolerate lazy reporting.

Is there a war on guns?

9:36 AM  

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