Sunday, August 19, 2007

A War on Two Fronts

This past week The Los Angeles Times has been battling to distinguish print journalism from two perceived competitors on the Internet: bloggers and news aggregation services run by companies like Google and Yahoo. Certainly, as Virtualpolitik reader Andy Sternberg has pointed out, there has been a considerable amount of disparaging language about news from distributed networks, including a facetious comparison that presents Google as a greater threat "than Osama bin Laden" in the cosmology of mainstream newspapers. In the bluntly titled "It's not journalism" , the opinion page complains about a new venture from the search engine giant designed to solicit user-generated content to supplement the news stories it aggregates and "plans to let people and organizations comment on the stories written about them."

The feature implies that the stories aggregated by Google News are incomplete -- possibly because of limited space, but also possibly because of bias, neglect or ignorance. News organizations have their flaws, and the added comments on Google may demonstrate that. But Google's effort may have a happier side effect: It may illustrate why journalism is more than just aggregating information -- and why Google News isn't really its competition after all.

The essence of good journalism is asking the right questions. Google, however, won't ask anything of those who submit comments. According to the company's announcement, its only interest is that the submissions are authentic, not that they're relevant or even truthful. As a result, the comments section is likely to be larded with spin, hype and obfuscation. A seemingly heartfelt comment may carry the CEO's name, but the words will probably have been typed by corporate flacks.

The Times may have a point, given the spotlight on abuses of Wikipedia by corporate spin-doctors, but they aren't addressing legitimate complaints about half-told stories in the print media in the age of faster-format reporting. And, besides, given their recent predilection for "facebook journalism," I don't think the LA Times should be throwing stones this summer.

In "How to decide who gets a shield," from Tim Rutten's "Regarding Media" column, there's more abuse of Internet news. Consider this passage as an interesting example of a left-handed compliment in which the first amendment rights of bloggers are defended, despite their volunteer status, while they are simultaneously typecast as cranks.

For purposes of a federal shield law, you have to decide whether a woman promoting revival of the single tax movement from a wi-fi-enabled root cellar in the Ozarks is worthy of the same protections as the Associated Press pool reporter on Air Force One. The Free Flow of Information Act tries to address the problem by defining a journalist as somebody who derives "financial gain or livelihood" from his or her work. Obviously, the AP correspondent is covered, but presumably our brave and lonely single-taxer is protected only if enough people click on the ad for her sister-in-law's fruitcake posted alongside the daily demands for a return to the silver standard.

The examples are interesting and point to some significant biases. By implication, journalists are metropolitan sophisticates while bloggers can only participate in public discourse at the edge to the geographical periphery, in this case from a rural backwater. What about bloggers involved in the Atlantic Yards controversy in Brooklyn? The stereotypes also seem to suggest that blogging is women's work and closely linked to other domestic activities. That may be true for mega-blogs like BlogHer and other collaborative blogs that look for synergy between the personal, the professional, and the political like Julia and Ellen Lupton's Design Your Life, but it's a generalization that fundamentally distorts the nature of the product of the collective labor of millions of people that encompasses a broad range of perspectives when it comes to gender, ethnicity, nationality, class, and education.

Rutten also seems to assume that all blogging is all opinion pieces, even when the appeal of many blogs is in their links to primary sources, investigative coverage, or encyclopedic knowledge on display.

More to the point, if the 1st Amendment and its attendant protections don't cover bloggers, then they've lost their intrinsic meaning. The fact of the matter is that many Internet bloggers -- opinionated, partisan, passionate and ill-mannered -- are exercising precisely the sort of speech that the Framers intended to protect: political speech.

Bloggers have certainly broken major stories, as the case of the Foley scandal shows. I've even had a small role here in Virtualpolitik, as stories have emerged that were later picked up by the mainstream media, as the synergy between Water Cooler Games, this blog, and other blogs took advantage of collective intelligence to reveal the SonicJihad debacle that involved the House Intelligence Committee.

It may be political speech, but it's not the kind of solo idiosyncrasy that Rutten is depicting. As an academic blogger, I don't recognize myself in this caricature at all. What I may do may not be academic writing, since I don't use footnotes, and I try to write in language that my college-age niece and nephew -- Megan Horan and Bill Durgin -- would understand. And it may not even be journalism either, perhaps because it is too essayistic, even though memoir-writing has been creeping into mainstream news periodicals for a long time. But it's certainly not the activity of a lone crank cut off from the broader cultural conversation either. So I'd rather be spared Rutten's faint praise.

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Blogger Lupton said...

Interesting re your "blogging is women's work" bit that there is a list circulating of Top Women Bloggers. This is by no means meant to be an oxymoron -- I think the diary / laundry list / navel gazing character of blogging, as well as its social media aspects, do key into aspects of female communication. And then there's the move by marketers to buy word of mouth by paying bloggers to plug products. They must be mainly thinking of women. As you point out, the challenge is to not to take women out of blogging, but to make sure there's content and substance there too.

10:16 PM  

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