Sunday, August 19, 2007

Bring in the Noise: Mainstream Backlash Against Blogs Continues

In today's LA Times op-ed section, Michael Skube criticizes what he calls "the noise" of weblogs, as opposed to "a willingness to suspect judgment and to put oneself in the background," which he sees as a trademark of journalism. He also argues that the "thorough fact-checking and verification" and "perseverance" are not something one does as a "hobby," as he insinuates blogging is.

Two responses immediately jump to my mind. One is that one of the reasons that blogs have sprung up is that journalists have failed at times to suspect their own judgment and to recede into the background. There are, of course, the obvious examples of the press going along and not questioning government policies and practices. There is also the fact that the celebrity and name-recognition of journalists seems to matter more than whether they recede into the background.

My second response is to throw up the stop sign as Skube rounds third (thinking he has hit a home run) and exclaim, "Hold your friggin' horses!" Since when did fact-checking, verification, and perseverance become the exclusive domain of journalists? Perseverance is a resolute habit that all of us should want to develop. Both fact-checking and verification have to do with the human qualities of honesty and integrity. Sure we demand those things from journalists, but there is no specialized training or higher income for persevering or being truthful.

Allow me to point out the irony in Skube's appeal to social critic Christopher Lasch to impugn bloggers in general for flooding the zone with information rather than robust debate. That appeal is, of course, full of holes, since there are bloggers who are interested in robust debate. But the irony is that a year after Lasch published his point about information overload (too early to be directed at bloggers, as Skube points out), he published the following about journalism and other professions in The True and Only Heaven:

[T]hey were all too deeply compromised by an exaggerated concern with the "bottom line" to attract people who wished simply to practice a craft or, having attracted them by some chance, to retain their ardent loyalty in the face of experiences making for their discouragement and cynicism .... it was becoming harder and harder for people to find work with self-respecting men and women who could throw themselves in with enthusiasm. The degradation of work represented the most fundamental sense in which institutions no longer commanded public confidence.
The break in public confidence is exactly the breach that many bloggers (though, granted, not all) are trying to step into. And because they may do it with enthusiasm that Lasch saw waning in journalism, Skube accuses them of merely bringing in the noise.

But Lasch himself accused journalism of giving itself too readily to the raw ambition associated with money and power. And there was a higher price to pay for that. Many bloggers see themselves as writers even when writing does not pay their bills. They may not be as motivated by the raw ambition that Lasch sees as corrosive of service and of a sense of calling, but they also don't have such corrosion standing between them and public confidence. So, bring in the noise, because when you break it down you will find robust debate in its tracks.

UPDATE: Enclave commenter, David, refers below to Talking Points Memo's response to being included in Skube's piece, even as Skube concedes that he has never read Talking Point's Memo. Another violation of the idea that journalists should know what they are writing about before they write.


  1. There's a bigger irony here. Skube [who's not a journalist, but a journalism professor at Elon] cited as an example of blogs that don't engage in "real" reporting Josh Marshall's TPM. Of course, anyone familiar with the blogosphere knows that Marshall has constructed a small empire dedicated to actual reporting, much of it of high quality. Marshall contacted Skube to ask why he was named as one of these allegedly reportage-free sites. Skube responded that he had never read TPM--that an editor at the LAT had complained that his original draft had lacked concrete examples, had suggested TPM as one, and he agreed to it sight unseen! See for yourself:

  2. Sounds like the old media gurus are feeling threatened by the masses ignoring their TVs and digesting the news of multiple online sources. Bloggers are an easy target. But don't worry - this isn't a trend that will die any time soon. You guys are here to stay. Old media will adapt or die.

  3. Michael Skube, a Pulitzer Prize winner, was fired by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for behaving like a journalist, so he kind of knows what he's talking about. To some extent.