Shots Across the Bow

A Reality Based Blog

 

The New Gatekeepers

I've been blogging since 2002. My output has waxed and waned from time to time, but I'm still here, pounding the keys and cranking out the words. And during that time, I've heard many stories from the traditional media outlets about how blogging was a fad that would fade away, and would never produce anything of lasting significance.

As usual, they got the story half right.

The fad bloggers did fade away. They came, they blogged, they went, and now they Twitter, or play on Facebook, or share pins on Pinterest.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the extinction of blogging; it didn't happen. Some bloggers rose to national prominence based solely on their scribblings. Blogging organizations sprang up to harness the talents of these energetic individuals who, as it turned out, did have something to say that was worth hearing. Advertisers joined the party and suddenly, people were making a living writing a blog.

And all the while, traditional media continued to sound the death knell for blogging. Their favorite refrain was "You never get original content from bloggers. They are always writing about something we covered first. They're just parasitic wannabees with an ax to grind."

And again, they got it half right. For a long time, opinion blogging did dominate the blogosphere. A blogger would read something interesting, link to it, then provide their own thoughts about it. For a while, that was enough. The novelty of having this new voice was sufficient. But then, a man named Fisk changed things forever, and in the process, gained lasting fame as his name became a verb. Fisk wasn't a blogger; instead, he was a member of the traditional media. He wrote an article so egregiously biased, not to mention just plain bad, that bloggers took it apart line by line, revealing inaccuracies, logical fallacies, and incredibly stupid conclusions. The better bloggers did so with such skill and precision, and not a little humor, that "fisking" became a very popular past time in the blogosphere.

This is where blogging began to grow up, because in order to fisk an article, you had to know the subject in significant detail. In some cases, the blogger was already an expert in the subject, which was why they chose it to fisk. But in many cases, they had to do some research to accurately assess the story's strengths and/or weaknesses. The research could involve looking up past statements made by the writer, or a political figure, or digging into old stories to find accurate information, or even calling participants in the story to get their take on the article. This 'fact checking" process became very similar to that followed by traditional reporters as they built their stories. Bloggers began developing a skill set that would not be out of place in a traditional newsroom.

The ability to spot an evasion, or deception in a released statement.

A strong grasp of the history of the subject,and an ability to detect when that history was being misrepresented.

Knowledge of the resources needed to research background information.

The importance of providing source materials to allow the reader to fact check for themselves and to make up their own minds.

Bloggers learned these skills on the job, as it were, and given that most of them were driven by their own passion, they learned quickly and well.

At the same time, traditional media outlets began changing their approach to reporting. Profit became important, which led to downsizing, which meant fewer stories produced, and even less research. Speculative stories, ones that called for investigation and development before producers could determine whether they were publishable or not became more rare, replaced by easy stories based on public statements and press releases.

Traditional media began to produce less original content than the new media.

So they changed their argument. Bloggers were producing original content, but they were sloppy, inaccurate, and not subject to "the layers of editorial oversight" provided in the traditional media.

Jayson Blair, Eason Jordan, and Dan Rather took care of that argument fairly quickly.

Media budgets continued to decline, along with circulation and ratings, and bloggers continued to both break news and cover news, and the latter with a thoroughness and level of specificity that traditional media couldn't touch even in their golden age. Bloggers don't start as journalists; they start as experts in something else. Lawyers, doctors, scientists, engineers, teachers, all are represented among bloggers, leading to a communal level of knowledge far exceeding that available to traditional news media. In a way, every blogger is both a journalist and an expert source rolled into one. The traditional media can't compete with them.

The New Media, began to supplant traditional media as the 'go to' source for original news content. Consider that the story about the assassination of Osama Bin Laden was broken by social media on Twitter, not CNN. Traditional media outlets were trying to adapt, but faced tough climb. A Twitter feed is great, but if it is not updated frequently with additional information, it grows stale rapidly. People will look elsewhere for the breaking details, and once they leave a source, they don't come back. People read a paper to find out what happened yesterday. To find out what's happening today, they go to the new media.

The Knoxville News Sentinel is a prime example of this. They work hard to get the initial story posted to the web, but it might take hours or days for an update, especially if the event occurs after 5PM. They still march to the beat of the 24 hour news cycle, and they just can't shake it. Facebook is a better source for current information than KnoxNews.com.

Traditional media survived as long as they did only because there was no other option for the people. If they wanted news, they had a limited choice of sources. Because their choices were so limited, people believed that the service provided by the media was good.

They had no basis for comparison.

Now they do, and the people have woken up to the sad fact that the traditional media sucks at what they do. They got complacent, and worse, arrogant. They decided that not only should they report the news, they should decide what was news, and what wasn't. From there, it was a small step to start shaping the news, shading coverage to fit into a certain philosophy, or ideology. Papers, news channels and magazines developed editorial slants. The news became less about the facts and more about the narrative. Then bloggers came along and challenged the narrative and all hell broke loose.

So, why the history lesson?

Well, if you've been reading here much lately, you know that I've been following two closely related stories, the Richard Baumgartner mess, and the death of Henry Granju. While I am friends with Henry''s mother, I have no personal interest in the Baumgartner case, except for how it relates to the handling of Henry's case, but the link that interests me even more is how the KNS has handled both stories. In both cases, there has been a ton of information available to the KNS that they have chosen not to report, or to delay reporting. There is no doubt in my mind that they are shaping coverage in order to protect their interests, rather than serving the public interests. Just this week, the publisher of the paper, Jack McElroy wrote with approval on his KNS blog about how a reporter was "grabbing the spotlight." I always thought that in journalism, you were supposed to see only the story, not the journalist. But here he was, holding out this reporter as a shining example of the cream of his particular crop. What was really funny was the article he wrote just a day earlier, justifying why this same reporter was able to work in the courtroom for years with a judge who repeatedly reported to work drunk or stoned, yet she never noticed until the tail end of his last trial, and then accepted without question a lame excuse.

I'm not saying everybody at the KNS is inept or corrupt; I am saying, just as Eason Jordan said about CNN, that those at the top of the KNS food chain are working to shape their coverage of the news to maintain their access to the folks who run the Knoxville and Knox County government, and that they are more interested in covering their butts than the news. I am saying that the traditional media, KNS included, has as its first priority making a profit. After that comes shaping the news to fit their preferred narrative. Covering the events that make the news is further down the list. That shift in priority means that their coverage will be based on profit first, and accuracy/relevance second. It means that publishers will write self aggrandizing pieces to to cover up journalistic failures, and that puff pieces reinforcing established orthodoxy will replace investigative reporting. Speaking truth to power has been replaced by speaking pravda for power.

I am saying that traditional media has become what they accused bloggers of being all along, sycophantic parasites with an ax to grind.

Yeah, I know. That's pretty harsh. I'm tarring with a broad brush. So let me be more precise. I'm sure there are good solid ethical journalists out there, still working hard to write the truth, and not twist the facts to fit some preconceived agenda. I'm sure there are people out there dedicated to delivering the story as it happens, with opinion clearly separated from fact, and analysis clearly identified as such. I'm sure that there are individuals out there who will still take the time to do basic research, to seek out experts and become knowledgeable about a subject before they write about it. I'm pretty sure that all of these folks are out there, hammering away at their keyboards, and cranking out the words.

I'm also sure that most of them are bloggers.
Posted by Rich
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