Thursday, May 03, 2007

White Noise

or, "Why Going 'Meta-' Does Not Necessarily Mean Going Above the Fray."

Jay Rosen makes an interesting point here, discussing journalism and its favorite tool, the "interview:"

Rutenberg's article made me wish I had followed, in this instance, blogger Dave Winer's policy. When asked for a phone or e-mail interview, he usually declines. "If you have a few questions, send them along, and if I have something to say, I'll write a blog post, which of course you're free to quote," he said last week. Responding to Winer, and to this event with Jason Calacanis and Wired magazine, Jeff Jarvis wrote: "The interview is outmoded and needs to be rethought."

I know I'm rethinking it. Rutenberg and I had a pretty detailed conversation about the put down of the establishment press under Bush, certain failures of imagination in Washington journalism, the interpretation of Colbert's performance in 2006, and the "musty" feel that the invitation to Rich Little had. I pointed out, for example, that Little was at his peak at roughly the same cultural moment that the Washington press corps was at its peak in the afterglow of Watergate.

But what Jim needed me for was the bloggers vs. journalists debate.

Which is a frame I've been fighting for two years. "In hiring an impersonator practiced in an old-school approach to comedy, meant to entertain but not offend, the White House Correspondents' Association has, however, provoked left-leaning political activists, who see his assignment as a retreat from last year's dinner." (Subtext: Wow, the left is as angry with the press as the right was. Just listen to the so-called Net roots attack us for not carrying their message.)
As the Rev. Jeremiah Wright has learned, what you say and what get's published by a journalist can be two very different things. Rosen discusses another occasion, when he was interviewed for a Frontline documentary, and ended up with two lines in the two-part documentary. Which, he explains, is par for the course. Now, here's the issue:

If Jay Rosen and Jeremiah Wright don't talk to broadcast media like Frontline, or print media like the New York Times, are they simply trees falling in the forest which nobody hears? The answer blogistan wants to promote is: no, not if they make their noise on-line. But frankly, I don't know who Dave Winer is. And I wouldn't even know to seek out his blog and read his "interview" if I didn't have a reason to already.

I do know, to my chagrin and disappointment, who Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Thomas Friedman, Charles Krauthammer, and Glenn Beck are. I also know Paula Zahn is now on CNN, that Katie Couric is with CBS, and that Brian Williams has a giant head in Jon Stewart's studio. I know this not because I watch their shows (except for Stewart's), or read their columns, but because they are in print and broadcast media which are readily available to me, and because their presence presents a very low, shall we say, signal to noise ratio. Which is something the Internet not only can't overcome, but isn't designed to overcome.

A lively discussion sparked over at Eschaton about Daily Kos. I know the site is popular, because everyone tells me it is. But outside of left blogistan, I know of absolutely no one who has heard of it. I also contend it is extremely popular because anyone who wants to (practically) can start a diary there. It's basically Blogger at a centralized website, and that means to get to the diaries you go through the Kos address. Which makes it "popular" not because it serves its audience well (like a TV show or a newspaper), but because its audience is its "staff." Not strictly, of course, but it takes many more people not connected to the newspaper to make it viable, than it does to make a website viable. But does that make DKos a media powerhouse? Does that mean bloggers can replace journalists and, as Jay Rosen suggests, self-publish their interviews?

Who will read them? The same number of people who read the interview with Jeremiah Wright in the NYT? Or the same number of people who have actually heard of Dave Winer, and know he has a blog, and know how to find it, or even bother Google to do so?

Let me put one number to this; anecdotal, but still people love to throw largely unsubstantiated numbers around in this discussion, so this number is as valid as any other you're going to get outside of a carefully vetted study. This is Eric Boehlert commenting on the media coverage of the Edwards' haircut story:

Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post's media critic, addressed the haircut story not once but twice online. And according to Dave Johnson and James Boyce, writing at the Huffington Post last week, the haircut story spread rapidly: "If you do a Google search for pages that contain the words 'edwards', '$400' and 'haircut' there are already 187,000 web pages that contain those terms!"
No, it's not the question of how much attention was paid to a stupid hair cut; Boehlert is right about that. It's the inundation. 187,000 web pages? Can you say "Road kill on the information superhighway?" Can you say "white noise"? 187,000 web pages, and all of them certainly full of trenchant and penetrating commentary, no? No, actually; probably not. But who is going to sort through those for the nuggets of valuable information? Yes, Boehlert's point is that stories like the $400 haircut sprout like mushrooms after a heavy spring rain, but almost any issue in the news sprouts a similar number of "mushrooms." And by and large such commentary and consideration keeps us in the dark and feeds us...well, you know.

If I have a complaint about blogging, this is it. Bogs tend to coalesce around similar opinions/attitudes, but re-creating the echo chamber is not dismantling the echo chamber and making the discussion democratically available. Alternatively, adding voices to the discussion is not a bad thing, but it's not a sign of salvation, either. All we're really doing is creating a national town meeting as cacophony. There's no simple answer to this problem, except to imagine democracy as a representative republic, which is what we have, for better or worse. The Greek democracy was far from ideal. To make it work, they limited it to white males; and even then, imagining the function of a trial such as Socrates underwent makes the mind boggle.

Is blogging causing this problem? No; but it isn't solving it, either. We've shifted the venue to a more accessible forum; but "access" is not to be confused with "democracy." That's the mistake the Beltway journalists have made.

Let's face it; it will always be easier to push a button on a remote control than to ask Google or Technorati to show you the most interesting blog comments on the web. That doesn't make blogging worthless; but that does make it quite a bit less than a revolution. It may give us all a chance to voice our opinion. But it doesn't mean everyone, or even anyone, is actually listening. And that may well be because it just gets harder and harder to hear anything in all the noise.

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