For a couple days this week, one of the most reviled men in the blogosphere was Jonathan Klein, formerly an executive at CBS News. Speaking on Friday about the scandal at 60 Minutes, which last week based part of a story on documents that were probably forged, he stuck up for the show he used to oversee by sneering at its online critics: "You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of check and balances [at 60 Minutes] and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing."
Since then, dozens of those pajama-clad bloggers have shot back at Klein, and at others who have issued similar proclamations. Their targets deserve their ire. But they have, in the process, embraced a few myths themselves.
The right-wing talk show host Hugh Hewitt summed up the dodgy counternarrative on his blog on Monday:
Self-selected reinforcements [among the bloggers] are rushing to the front. They have talent. They have opinions. And they do have small audiences that will grow based upon their talent. CBS is static, constrained by budgets, hampered by quasi-tenured staffs and old hiring practices. Looking over their collective shoulders back at the suits, wondering if they are about to get thrown under the bus, this uncertain army of agenda journalists, exposed and suddenly under assault, look more and more like the Orcs when Theoden came over the hill in LOTR III.
It's an appealing vision. There's some truth to it. I've been known to write similar things myself. But when you put it so starkly, it's almost a mirror image of Klein's worldview, with the white hats and the black hats reversed. In fact, the 60 Minutes saga is not essentially a conflict between the old media and the new. Nor is it—as the off-the-cuff reference to "agenda journalists" implies—a story about media bias.
When CBS aired those dubious memos last Wednesday, it set off a reaction that began in cyberspace but by the end of Thursday had gotten all the way to Nightline. Bloggers and Freepers were doing fresh reporting and fresh analysis of the story. So were ABC, the Associated Press, and The Washington Post. The professional media drew on the bloggers for ideas; the bloggers in turn linked to the professionals' reports. The old media and the new media weren't at loggerheads with each other—or, to the extent that they were, they were also at loggerheads with themselves. They complemented each other. They were part of the same ecosystem.
That's what is most fascinating about the elimination of media entry barriers, the rise of distributed journalism, and the new influx of reporting and commentary from outside the professional guild. The new outlets aren't displacing the old ones; they're transforming them. Slowly but noticeably, the old media are becoming faster, more transparent, more interactive—not because they want to be, but because they have to be. Competition is quickening the news cycle whether or not anyone wants to speed it up. Critics are examining how reporters do their jobs whether or not their prying eyes are welcome. And if a network or a newspaper doesn't respond to those criticisms—if it doesn't make itself more interactive—then its credibility takes a blow. (That's what has really hurt CBS this week. I can barely tell a 1973 typewriter from a hole in the ground, and neither can millions of other Americans. But we do know stonewalling when we see it.)
And bias? Many of the bloggers challenging the memos believe mainstream reporters are prejudiced in favor of the Kerry campaign. Indeed, that is one possible reason why 60 Minutes might fail to properly authenticate documents that make George W. Bush look bad. But it doesn't explain why so many other major outlets would rush to undermine the report. If they're biased, then they didn't let their bias get in the way of a good story. (A more credible accusation of prejudice might be leveled against The Boston Globe, which inaccurately reported that one of the experts who had questioned the memos had changed his mind.)
Meanwhile, many of the blogs leading the charge against CBS are themselves notoriously biased—not just in terms of having a slant, but in terms of letting that slant get in the way of clear thinking. Many pro-Bush bloggers are comparing Dan Rather to Jayson Blair right now; few are comparing him to another discredited New York Times reporter, Judith Miller, even though the parallel is closer. (Hardly anyone thinks CBS invented those memos, a la Blair. They think it was taken in by untrustworthy sources, a la Miller.) This is presumably because Miller's shoddy reporting, unlike Rather's, supports those bloggers' worldview. Similarly, the most vigorous defenses of 60 Minutes came not from CBS but from left-wing websites with, again, a blinding bias. Thoughtful liberals such as Kevin Drum acknowledged early on that the memos might be fakes, but other bloggers—and many commenters on Drum's site—proudly took up the cause, searching as frantically for reasons to accept the documents as their conservative counterparts were hunting for reasons to knock them down. If you're looking for "agenda journalists," this debate coughed up plenty on both sides.
That's not necessarily a bad thing. One group's agenda drove it to make a strong case against the CBS story; the other group's agenda shot down some of the weaker claims the conservatives were making. Now, if you read nothing but right-wing sites like Free Republic or left-wing ones like The Daily Kos—and there are some political zombies out there I suspect of doing just that—then you're not going to be served very well. But if you look at the larger Internet, where partisans try to shoot down each other's arguments and relatively independent-minded writers weigh the results, you'll be in pretty good shape. You'll be in better shape, in fact, than if you rely entirely on the old media. The biases in blogdom are generally more transparent than the biases in the mainstream; it's not hard to take the slant of a site like Eschaton or InstaPundit into account when you're weighing its claims, whereas the assumptions obscured by the rhetoric of "objective journalism" aren't always so easily discerned. And that encourages critical thinking. There are still people who are willing to believe something just because they read it in The New York Times—or just because they read it in their favorite weblog or, in some sorry cases, in an e-mail from a con in Nigeria. But it's harder to ignore rival worldviews and detailed critiques, not just when you're trying to authenticate some memos but when you're looking for an answer that's more elusive.
When I say it's harder to ignore rival worldviews and detailed critiques, I'm not just talking about bloggers. I'm talking about mainstream reporters, who are gradually getting locked into an uneasy partnership with their amateur cousins online. It's not a voluntary relationship, and there are news professionals out there who will deny until their dying breath that it exists. It's more like the partnership between Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier in The Defiant Ones. But it's real.
I'm not a Pollyanna. Cyberspace offers many rewards, but it's also filled with partisan robots and knuckle-dragging bullies, with would-be reporters who don't understand the concept of evidence and would-be analysts who can't be bothered to comprehend the views they're critiquing, with would-be stylists who rely on clichés and would-be satirists without a trace of wit. Worse yet, it's filled with disinformation and fog, especially during a presidential campaign and a war. It's tempting to recoil from all the contradictory claims and to despair of ever learning the truth.
But that disinformation and fog were there in the old days as well. They're just more obvious in this more transparent age, when the voice of Dan Rather is no longer enough to soothe a viewer's doubts. You're worried you'll never learn the whole truth? Welcome to the human condition, my friend.