alien & sedition.
Wednesday, August 01, 2007
  Hating the Media, and Being It

Nicholas Beaudrot points us to this 1996 piece by James Fallows on "Why Americans Hate the Media." It's an excellent read, every bit as relevant today as it was a decade ago. Matt Yglesias says the whole thing is so good that it's hard to focus on any one particular part; I agree, but I'm going to highlight one passage anyway:
The natural instinct of newspapers and TV is to present every public issue as if its "real" meaning were political in the meanest and narrowest sense of that term—the attempt by parties and candidates to gain an advantage over their rivals. Reporters do, of course, write stories about political life in the broader sense and about the substance of issues—the pluses and minuses of diplomatic recognition for Vietnam, the difficulties of holding down the Medicare budget, whether immigrants help or hurt the nation's economic base. But when there is a chance to use these issues as props or raw material for a story about political tactics, most reporters leap at it. It is more fun—and easier—to write about Bill Clinton's "positioning" on the Vietnam issue, or how Newt Gingrich is "handling" the need to cut Medicare, than it is to look into the issues themselves.
It is easier and more fun to focus on the game as opposed to the issues; I'm no professional journalist but in my own blogging I know that whenever I'm feeling lazy or rushed, my work gets distinctly hackier. But perhaps more to the point, such a shallow approach -- because it's quicker and easier -- is much better suited to the media driving contemporary American political discourse. Fallows was writing in an era of talk radio and the 24-hour cable news cycle, but I bring this up because the internet -- particularly the blogosphere -- is subject to the very same pressures.

Writing about policy is labor-intensive and time-consuming. But cable news is based on feeding viewers a continuous and ever-changing stream of stories, varying content and getting it out there before competitors do. It's very similar in the blogosphere. The number one rule of blogging (which I've thoroughly violated over the past couple of weeks) is Thou Shalt Post. The equation is really simple, and bloggers know it: the more you post, the more readers you get. Post less, your traffic declines. It's practically a law of nature. Doing in-depth research and analysis means you can't keep up the stream of content necessary to make a dent in a vast blogosphere. That's not to say there aren't some bloggers who do very good in-depth work and find readerships willing to wait for it, but generally speaking they're swimming upstream.

Even the best blogger-journalists, meanwhile, retreat to game-analysis on a fairly regular basis. In part that's probably because political blog readers are more interested in that sort of thing than the general public. But given the ferocity of the blogosphere's media criticism, it's interesting to note how much we're subject to the same forces. As Fallows puts it, the tendency is that "all issues are shoehorned into the area of expertise the most-prominent correspondents do have: the struggle for one-upmanship among a handful of political leaders." A lot of bloggers do a much better job avoiding this trap than do the titans of TV news. But given the imperatives of our medium, it remains a trap into which we can fall, if we aren't careful.

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I agree, but in a desperate mood.

You depend on your audience. When they abandon you because you pause too long, because you are too slow, too thorough, too thoughtful, too balanced, too complex to provide them with the news and op-ed fast food they prefer - when they abandon you because of your true quality and flock to MacDonald's of News - what can you do? - Not much.

Let's go deeper and ask:
What are the conditions in our society that create the type of audience you need for a decent journalism and decent blogging?
Can you do something to keep or grow such conditions?

I don't have a sufficient answer to my questions.
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Critical analysis of the American conservative movement from a progressive perspective. Also some stuff about the Mets.

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