The esteemed journalist Mark Bowden is back with another thought-provoking article on the digital media revolution. It is at once deeply reported, crisply written — and strangely myopic in its conclusions.
In the October issue of the Atlantic, Bowden tracks the story of how a partisan blogger armed Fox News and the rest of the TV noise machine with the primary attacks used against Supreme Court nominee (and now Justice) Sonia Sotomayor. (As I wrote in May, an early riff suggesting that conservative Republicans would wisely refrain from attacking Sotomayor — another echo in the chamber — would prove plain silly.) Bowden shows how a blogger by the name of Morgen Richmond dug up and helped disseminate obscure video clips that would soon have every talking head focused on Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” and judicial “policy making” comments from the past.
Bowden asserts that the deployment of those comments was “the work not of journalists, but of political hit men.” Although he acknowledges that partisans supplying material for TV news broadcasts is nothing new, he sees a dark trend, one to be blamed squarely on the proliferation of blogging. “With journalists being laid off in droves, savvy political operatives have stepped eagerly into the breach. What’s most troubling is not that TV-news producers mistake their work for journalism, which is bad enough, but that young people drawn to journalism increasingly see no distinction between disinterested reporting and hit-jobbery.”
The problem here is twofold. First, Bowden levels blame at the wrong target. As blogging expert Scott Rosenberg writes, “Surely the failure here is on the part of the TV news organizations that turned it into a marquee soundbite without looking more deeply into it. Wasn’t that their job, their process, their vetting — the safeguard that ostensibly distinguishes them from the unwashed blogging masses? Aren’t they the ones who are supposed to be after truth rather than scalps?”
That may be giving cable news a little too much credit, but as Rosenberg also points out, most bloggers don’t even purport to contribute journalism. And the failure to appreciate what blogs do contribute — especially collectively — is the other shortcoming in Bowden’s discussion. Morgen Richmond himself explains this clearly, in his response to Bowden’s piece:
[W]hile I wholeheartedly disagree with Bowden’s ultimate assessment that the Sotomayor “court is where policy is made” and “wise Latina” comments were non-controversial when taken in full context, the truth of the matter is that literally within hours (if not minutes) of posting both of these, there were an assortment of bloggers across the political spectrum dissecting and analyzing these finds. And not just the short clips which ultimately played on TV. I posted a link to the full Duke Law video almost immediately, and embedded as much of the “wise Latina” speech as I could in my initial post, so anyone who was interested had access to as much context as they wanted. Many highly-regarded blogs, such as the Volokh Conspiracy, concluded as Bowden did that these statements were not as controversial as they seemed on their face. And of course many others were not so willing to give Sotomayor the benefit of the doubt. The point is that this started taking place within hours on the internet, long before any of this made it’s way into the broader media. (Remember that I posted both of these statements before Sotomayor was even nominated.)
Bloggers often are lazy about providing useful context for readers — political agenda or no, it’s not easy to do well in the short space the genre typically requires. Yet, the linking that so often serves as a blogger’s shorthand points up the powerful information ecosystem of the Web. It is the information consumer’s charge, as much as ever, to dig deeper, to explore widely and to question orthodoxy. (Including his own.) The digital medium allows this far more readily than a television broadcast or print article does.
This isn’t the first time I’ve criticized Bowden for his media analysis — see my recent writing on his takedown of New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger, as well as Bowden’s response.
He’s one of the best and most respected in the business, and I couldn’t agree more with Richmond when he says the world needs more journalists like Bowden, not fewer. Surprisingly, though, Bowden’s own legwork on the role of blogging in the Sotomayor story didn’t help him to get past his seemingly jaundiced view of the digital medium and its democratizing power. I think he tips his hand when toward the end he says: “There’s more here than just an old journalist’s lament over his dying profession, or over the social cost of losing great newspapers and great TV-news operations. And there’s more than an argument for the ethical superiority of honest, disinterested reporting over advocacy.”
But that’s precisely his thrust. With no small whiff of nostalgia he reiterates that an old-school reporter, proceeding from curiosity over political conviction, is more likely to discover the unexpected and reap the rewards of “speaking wholly for himself, without fear or favor.” Maybe so. Yet, Bowden could just as easily be describing bloggers when he concludes that reporters have “the power to stir up trouble wherever they go. They can shake preconceptions and poke holes in presumption. They can celebrate the unnoticed and puncture the hyped. They can, as the old saying goes, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.”