Friday, September 16, 2005

Bloggers vs MSM

I've been a newspaperman since I co-founded my junior high paper at the tender age of 12, about 36 years ago. My final decision to become an ink-stained wretch was made in the heady post-Watergate days, the apex of journalism's nobility and the calm before the anti-"Media" storm. Back then, it was still possible for a young reporter to think of himself as a kind of knight who could change the world with his typewriter.

Clearly, things have changed. The idealism of young journalists has lost its edge, the world doesn't care too much what we say anymore, and the typewriter is a dusty decoration on my credenza.

And now I -- and many like me -- have been demoted from "knight" to "MSM." This blogging acronym for "mainstream media" oozes a certain flippant disrespect, as if a life in journalism is not merely the least qualification for a blogger, but might even connote to Blogospherians an intolerable cowardice, arrogance or treachery. Many -- maybe most -- bloggers might just as well hang out a sign: "We don't want your kind 'round here."

Today at LibertyBlog.com, I see the equivalent of 'yo mama" cyber-tagging: "The MSM is crowing that it, not the blogosphere, had the upper hand in Katrina coverage. There’s only one problem with that: The MSM got the story—It was all Bush’s fault!—wrong. Should it count if people believe you, but you’re lying? Unlike in Rathergate, where bloggers were read and right, history will repudiate MSM coverage of Katrina. "

Maybe I'm too new at blogging to understand the nuances. The blogosphere is certainly not a utopian society, free of prejudice, deception, crime, or other sins. It's merely an extension of the old-model society, like a neighborhood on the other side of the Monorail tracks. So I'm not particularly surprised that the "Old Guard" of the Information Age (the so-called MSMers) are held suspect by the New Guard (bloggers.)

But I'm curious about why. I hear regularly how the MSM lacks fairness (OK, and balance) but increasingly I believe that aggressive news-consumers aren't truly seeking reporting without bias ... they want reporting that reflects their own bias. "Fair" is a report that generally supports the reader/viewer's established opinions ... "unfair" is a report that allows for divergent viewpoints. Thus, the mainstream media, in striving to allow for differing views, cannot avoid being labeled as "unfair" ... and thus is demonized in the blogosphere (and apparently everywhere else that a person would be jealous of his opinions.) And in the Blogosphere, we are allowed to seek out the "fairest" opinions/reporting, i.e., the ones that fit our biases.

In my short blogging experience, I have sensed not just disdain for each other by both bloggers and MSMers, but a mutual paranoia that either might be the death of honest, accurate, important, genuine and noble information exchange. Personally, I believe more information is better than less, so I am not threatened by the Blogosphere, and I see its value in transmitting information that transcends the basic restrictions of mainstream media, namely space, time and mass audience.

I worry a little about the blogosphere's "Tower of Babel" and information-anxiety, but they don't keep me awake at night. Will the whole world soon turn to bloggers (and away from MSM) for information? It's doubtful. But to supplement their minimum daily requirement of knowledge and entertainment? Absolutely.

I really want to know, from non-MSM bloggers and MSMers alike, is the blogosphere a community that is made better or worse by your co-existence? Why should one side be viewed more or less skeptically than the other? What are the relative strengths and weaknesses in this diverse community, vis a vis MSM?

Talk to me, bloggers.

15 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, you asked for it...

To start with, you seem to assume that "fair" and "biased" are antonyms. They are not.

"Fair" means that one is prepared to acknowledge the existence of facts that go against one's positions, predictions, or philosophy. For example, I detested Bill Clinton, but I'm quite prepared to acknowledge things he did that were good - signing welform reform being at the top of the list, followed by signing NAFTA. I acknowledge that his administration ran surpluses, though I would posit that the split nature of government at the time was the driving factor, so that he doesn't get all the credit for that. Yet that still implies that there was some good from him being president, whereas under Bush and a Republican Congress, spending has increased faster than it ever did under Clinton, which I don't like.

I hope that shows that, even though I'm biased against Clinton, I can be fair when discussing him. I don't mind pointing out his fraudulent behaviour during the Lewinsky mess or the fact that his cabinet contained such mediocrities as Janet Reno, Madeline Albright, and Warren Christopher. I can point to actions be each of those that I think indicate their incompetence. But I will not take the position that whatever Clinton did was axiomatically wrong, or look for ways to twist the positive things about his administration to make them look negative.

Many in the MSM clearly do not treat Bush this way. They are biased against him, but that's actually OK as long as they acknowledge it and try not to let their bias unduly affect their reporting. But what many bloggers also see is that those MSM practitioners are also unfair. They are not capable of seeing anything positive about Bush in an objective light.

Bush's National Guard service was generally positive. All the people that served with him back that up. Was it squeaky clean perfect? Perhaps not. But it's unfair to ignore the bulk of that period of his life to try and find something, anything, that makes it look negative. That's what CBS was doing. They were on a quest to find something negative, because Mary Mapes is not just biased against Bush - she hated him to the point that she wanted to do something about it. She was incapable of being fair to him. She allowed her thirst for making him look bad to deceive herself into accepting obviously fraudulent documents, and her inability to be fair shows even today in that she has *never* acknowledged what the rest of us know - she got took, and the documents were forgeries.

No, bloggers make no pretense about being unbiased. But the best (Glenn Harlan Reynolds, Powerline, QandO, etc.) are at least fair. They will point out things that make even their ideological enemies look good, and they will acknowledge things that make their ideological allies look bad.

Certainly there are also unfair bloggers. The odious Oliver Wilis is a case in point. He is as determined as Mary Mapes, perhaps more so, to find the worst in Bush, and he seems incapable of admitting anything could ever be to Bush's credit. He also gets regularly slammed in other blogs for this. Blogs that strive for fairness are just as likely to gang up on another blogger being unfair as they are a journalist being unfair.

There are far-right bloggers who show the same unfairness as Willis. But I do honestly believe, as someone who as followed the blogging world for five years, that there are a lot more bloggers on the left that long ago left behind any pretense of fairness. They attract a certain audience that is exactly as you describe - people who only want to read what fits their worldview.

But I think you are way off base in thinking that most "aggressive news consumers" do the same thing. The ones I know sample a wide variety of news sources. What they are looking for is not merely stuff that confirms their worldview. Instead, they want news and analysis that is reasonably fair, and as transparent as possible in acknowledging bias that may affect the coverage or opinions involved.

Anonymous said...

Hi,
I saw your comment on Joi Ito's blog.

I quit watching television over 20 years ago, gave up the radio about 15 years ago, and just give newspapers a cursory glance.

It is not about bias, but also about attitude, television seems to shout at the viewer.

There is something, too about listening to those you agree with. Would you give much credence to someone who says that the sky is just a blue plastic tarp, floating just out of rifle range?

The MSM told me of the coming ice age in the early 60's. They applauded the War on Poverty when Johnson was president. The highly successful War on Drugs? The wonderful idea that more money will fix education.

Somewhere, credibility was lost.

How to regain credibility?

I do not know.

Thanks,

Jim

jim at sjstewart.net

Eric Blair said...

Kinda what Anonymous said.

I do not waste anytime with say, the TV network news, and I don't have cable, so I'm spared CNN as well as FOX. Its all sound bite screeching as far as I'm concerned.

And forget about the newspapers. I can read the AP or Reuters online, for free, so the only reason to get a newspaper is for the coupons. It certainly isn't for the editorials.

I'll pop around to many different sources, and by comparing them all synthesize some sort of idea of what's going on.

What I absolutely detest is the opinion disguised as news that creeps into the language constantly. It seems to me that every reporter really wants to be a columnist, and this compromises their reporting.

And I really hate the word 'journalist' as its commonly applied. I want reporters, not journalists.

John Hay said...

Ron,

I think you’re right about the paranoia and mistrust. The blog phenomenon is new, though, and things probably still have time to shake out. One important issue, I believe, is that both sides see each other as competitors - this colors things. I personally welcome professional journalists to the blogosphere as competition is healthy. So is cooperation. We can learn from each other. In the end, the blogosphere would have nothing to complain about without the MSM - there is a symbiosis that seems to go unrecognized. Thanks for your comments.

Anonymous said...

Here is a puzzle for you, modified and paraphrased from a popular movie (Dark Crystal, I think?).

You wish to leave a closed room. There are two doors, and two door guards, one for each door. One door lets you out. The other kills you. One guardian always tells the truth, the other always lies. You don't know which door or guard is which. You may ask a guard a question to determine the way out. What, and who, do you ask?

Now, let's adjust things a little. Behind one door is objective reality, behind the other, lies. The two guards are journalists and/or bloggers.

The answer to the puzzle is to ask one guard what the other guard would answer if you asked which door lets you out. Because your answer is filtered through two guards, one who tells the truth and one who lies, you can work out what the truth is. There is always one lie in the chain.

Now, it seems to me that journalists (especially in the US) have long held the opinion that it is their job to somehow tell the truth in an unbiased fashion. That is, to present the final truth in a story, with nothing else. To reconcile this with an implicit belief that there is no final truth, they advocate providing "both" sides of a story. This assumes exactly two sides, and is generally used as an excuse to present two carefully picked sides uncritically.

This is very very foolish, because we are all biased. We all see what we expect to see. We weight different data differently when making decisions. We may discount it completely (that guard was lying, maybe?). There is a reality there, but we each prevent ourselves from seeing it, at least a little. However, our criticism of the data we have is valuable, and we should present it.

So, when we see something regurgitated by current day journalists, we see an answer, with no idea of who it went through.

This leads me to two points:
1) Authors should list their sources, their built in bias, their honest opinion of what they think happened, and how they weighted all their data to get to their opinion, and the reliability of those they sourced through. They should state explicitely when they think someone was lying or leaving something out. None of this "provide two quotes, one for, one against" drivel. Be critical.

Only if that happens can we as readers judge what really happened. Furthermore, it lets us judge the author on a story by story basis. If many journalists do this about the same story, you soon get an idea for who is being fair and who can be trusted in this one class of story.

2) We should try to route our answers through at least two guards - one biased towards an idea, and one biased away. Provided they follow the rules in (1), everyone benefits greatly. Of course most things are not purely binary, but the approach works in the general case too.

Blogs allow the above to happen in a haphazard way, which I think is the best way for it to happen - you want as many independent views on something as you can get. This means sampling from one each of each type of blog or newspaper. Thus we are very lucky - we get far more than just two guards.

Generally its fairly pointless to read MSM reports of anything, as journalists strenuously do everything they can to break (1) above - they provide a finished picture with hidden bias and nothing about how they got the picture. They quote empty quotes uncritically. They hold certain assumptions as such basic truths they don't even know they exist. They are prisoners of their backgrounds and their backgrounds are often similar enough that they don't think very differently. They shop of "alternate" quotes, without realising they have themselves defined what the alternate was.

I generally read many blog posts about several MSM reports, and about each other. That is the only way I can compensate for journalist's abject failure to do their jobs, and for blogger's inbuilt biases.

To answer your questions directly:

The blogosphere is better for the existence of journalists. It gives bloggers stuff to critically examine, because they typically don't have the time or resources to do footwork themselves.

That said, the 'sphere would be way better off if the journalists were doing a better job. Journalists find basic information, obfuscate it and publish it. Bloggers attempt to remove the obfuscation by being critical of the information and each other. Journalists would do better if they just told us what they think and support their case.

Both sides should be view skeptically, but the MSM should be view more skeptically because it is less internally diverse, susceptible to groupthink, and populated by people who are generally ignorant in the fields upon which they report. Blogs should be viewed skeptically on the individual level, but much less skeptically on the global level - you can aggregate independant data points. Also, the 'sphere is populated by people with real knowledge about specific fields, and blogs can mine this resource. Criticism is not a democracy - one hard fact in refutation of an article wins. It would be nice if the MSM would figure this out one day, and learn a little humility.

Finally, blogs are a self-organising phenomenon. Bloggers that show themselves to be fair and critical (kudos for the comment above that fair dos not imply unbiased) gain readers that understand their biases and appreciate their critical thinking and fairness. Those bloggers are readers themselves, and read other blogs that are fair and critical, thus acting as filters and search engines built into one.

The result is a kind of information purification and aggregation. By knowing a few names, you can access most worthy blogposts in a particular information space.

As a reader, I like to make sure there is at least one blogger in the information chain biased against the data in a story. Often, the media take this position for me, as I disagree with much of the groupthink I see in MSM stories (I am a moderate libertarian with a healthy admiration for mankind and its progress) However, I like checking around and aggregating data.

Unfortunately for me, most of the lefty bloggers that I have found fair and critical in the past have stopped blogging, leaving only the die-hard extremists that everyone else seems to read. This is annoying as it makes it harder to double check my information.

I think it is fairly obvious that I hold most journalism done today in contempt. However, now that the one guard that is journalism has been joined by another that is the blogosphere, I have a choice of gatekeepers, and I intend to use both to keep each other, if not honest, then transparent.

phparrot at proheretic.com (remove the animal to mail me)

Jenny D. said...

Ron, I answered over at Pressthink, but I'll say it here too. I was a journalist and now I'm an academic, and while academics often don't sterling reputations, the good ones do. They do because of the vetting and screening and debating over ideas. It's not easy to get other academics to consider an idea. It takes a lot of work to build knowledge and evidence.

Plus, there is the valuing of debate over ideas.

These don't exist in the news biz. That's why I'm not enamored with it anymore.

don said...

I have a higher regard for writers who express their views online than the "journalists" on television who, as you all agree, "scream" at you.

I, too, have gotten tired of watching the news, hearing it or reading it.

What I did discover ultimately about blogging is that I can choose which blogs I want to read. I get a dose of writings from the left, right, center and even from the self-proclaimed high and mighty writers. But I think of it mostly as fair game. You can either read on or move on to the next blog. I honestly appreciate bloggers and MSMers alike because they write what they want to write about.

Fair or biased or otherwise, the fact is, they have expressed their views and it's up to the reading public to use their better judgement to filter out what is right or wrong.

"What they are looking for is not merely stuff that confirms their worldview. Instead, they want news and analysis that is reasonably fair, and as transparent as possible in acknowledging bias that may affect the coverage or opinions involved."

To this commnet, I agree.

Kerry said...

Little things about journalists' writing bugs me, makes me suspicious and distrusful of them and their contextual viewpoints. For example, the phrases, "This comes as..." usesd to connect in space, time or both, events or occurances which have neither causality nor relationship. The phrase, "Not everyone is happy," or "Not everyone agrees", followed by an example of someone who doesn't. The unspoken, tacit implication twofold: the "other side" has been heard from and the requirement of journalism are met-tell 'both sides'. And two, no sense of the size of the 'other side' is given. Maybe there is just one person; after all, not everyone was happy. These practices both distort and obscure context. Is a voice which disagrees the necessary context, or might context be something else? For example: "The criminal Jesus was executed today by Roman authorities. Two other common criminals were also executed. Called by his followers "The Son of Man" and by others as the Messiah, not everyone agreed with these descriptions however. The Jewish High priest Caiphas said "This man was a blasphemer and a threat to order." This comes as the other zealots..." etc. etc. Maybe a poorly written example, sorry, but neverthelss I have become very suspicious of TV and print journalists. Too much is left out, and the edits hide the omissions.

Stephen M. St. Onge said...

&nbps; &nbps; &nbps; To me, the single most important questions in judging a news source aaaaaaaare: "Is what I'm hearing accuate? complete? and in context?"

&nbps; &nbps; &nbps; Obviously, there's always judgment and room for error in the news business.&nbps; Some questions are very difficult indeed (Westmoreland vs. CBS comes to mind).&nbps; Still, if an honest reporter can't get things mostly right most of the time, he shoulc quit.

&nbps; &nbps; &nbps; Since it's the anniversary of Rathergate, let's remember something.&nbps; In the days immediately following the report, there was honest disagreement over whether the documents were genuine or not.&nbps; A few still argue the question.&nbps; But within a few weeks, it was cleaar that CBS had been massively dishonest in concerning the documents in question.

&nbps; &nbps; &nbps; CBS's initial claims, which I documented on my then new blog, went about like this:

&nbps; &nbps; &nbps; 'Because of the importance of this story, we gave extra care.&nbps; We made sure the chain of posssession was rock-solid, we verified that our source had acess to them in the course of his work, and we showed them to people who served with Lt. Col. Killian at the time.&nbps; They recalled seeing the memos then.&nbps; In addition, we sat on this story for five weeks while documents examiners inspected them, and they were satisfied that the memos are genuine.'

&nbps; &nbps; &nbps; And it was all a lie.&nbps; The immediate source for the memos was Bill Burkett, of dubious stability, and with a history of making false accusations concerning the President.&nbps; Burkett's stories of how he got the memos varied, but were consistent in that no one could be identified as the source.&nbps; CBS had the memos for less than a week when the story ran.&nbps; Of the four people hired to vet the documents, two expressed doubts about them, and were promptly dropped.&nbps; The other two said 'These are copies, it's impossible to verify them, the best I can do is say that the signature may be Killian's, but it may have been taken from other documents.'

&nbps; &nbps; &nbps; In short, CBS lied in all directions, then backtracked and claimed an honest mistake.&nbps; But the defense was a lie, and so was the background CBS offered with the report.

&nbps; &nbps; &nbps; I have yet to hear any member of the MSM say 'Of course, you can't trust a word CBS says, they'll lie whenever they think it's to their advantage and there's a reasonable chance of getting away with it.'

I could go on, for instance about Dan Cohen's recent book Anonymous Souce.  Cohen, a Republican, leaked some embarrassing information concerning a Demogratic candidate to Minneapolis reporters, in return for a promise of anonymity.&nbps; The Minneapolis papers identified him as the source, and Cohen sued them. The case was distinguised by the ever-changing explanations of why, although it was terribly important to honor promises of confidentiality, and although the papers in question routinely ran anonymously sourced stories that embarressed Republicans, it was vitally important to identify Cohen by name in their storiesin their stories (although it wasn't importsnt to mention the reporters had promised Cohen anonymity, and that the editors reneged against the reporters strenuous objections.

&nbps; &nbps; &nbps; In trying to justify their backstabbing in court, the arguments about why the papers hadn't committed a breach of contract were distinguish by their everchanging nature.&nbps; The best was the argument that from the moment a reporter got up in the morning, till she fell asleep again, she was an agent of the newspaper, unledss a source requested anonymity.&nbps; At that moment, she became a private party, and all promises were between her and the source.&nbps;
But, the moment the source handed her information, she became an agent of the paper again, and was legally, ethically, and professionally obliged to turn the information over to her employers, who could do with it as they willed.

&nbps; &nbps; &nbps; The problem for the us bloggers is, we think you lie to us as a matter of routine.&nbps; You need to convince us you're trying to tell us the truth.

BR said...

Hi, I answered you at Macsmind before I realized you had a home page. Here it is again:

Interesting to read your viewpoint above, Ron. One would hope that "fair" reporting aspires to truth; i.e., verified facts, whereas "unfair" connotes outright lies, deliberate omissions, wrong targetting, and altered importance reporting with malicious intent to harm persons or groups.

Take Watergate, for example. The target was Nixon for political reasons. He was guilty of participating in the coverup. Few looked at who really ordered the many break-ins into the DNC offices in the first place and John W. Dean's, the CIA's, the Mullen Company's, Woodward's and Califano of Williams & Connolly's pivotal roles. (See Jim Hougan's book, "Secret Agenda.") And the charade continues to this day with the false "outing" of Mark Felt as Deep Throat.

One can report truth (exact time, place, form and event), even if it is about someone's crime, as long as the facts are verified and all relevant data are investigated and reported. Then those who read/view the data with their own biases may be unsatisfied, but the majority will recognize truth and will have respect for the media, whether MSM or blogosphere :)

StinKerr said...

Sometimes, albeit rarely, there are blatant lies in some writer's stories. The AP writer who reported a crowd booing at a Bush rally when the President mentioned Bill Clinton's hospitalization for a heart problem. Bloggers busted the liar and presented video and sound of the event.

More often there are lies of omission. Often bad economic or employment news is made much of but when the trend starts going the other way it is ignored. Reporting on one and not reporting the other is a form of bias.

There are facts that are either glossed over or never reported. Sometimes these are important facts that can greatly change the context and sometimes the meaning of the facts that are reported.

When I find myself debating a position on a blog thread I sometimes find, in researching the subject, points that will support the other person's position. I am then faced with the quandry of using that source material or trying to find something more in line with my own position. I will admit that I have succumbed to temptation from time to time and ignored the source material that doesn't support me.

It's not honest, nor is it right. My excuse is that I'm on one side of an argument and there is no reason to give my opponent ammunition. The problem is that if I were a reporter instead of a private individual I could not in good conscience succumb to that temptation. Unfortunately some reporters do and that is when I start referring to them as 'writers'. They are not reporting any more, they are taking a side in a debate.

BR said...

To the commenter above (Stinkerr):

Wow, now I know what it is the French mean with their phrase "mots justes" ! There's an almost physical sense of relief when someone says it exactly right, a vent for built-up frustration!
(No pun on your nom de plume intended :) )

You've shown so clearly the various twists and results of omission. MSM "reporting" became one-sided debates pushing detrimental agendas. The only "public response" allowed was in controlled op-eds and "Letters to the Editor" and selective tv interviews of a chosen few. Chosen by the very paper or tv company which printed or aired the original opinionated "news"; in other words, a monopoly. Fortunately, it's been broken. I still value good reporters and want to be able to pick up a newspaper or watch tv news - if only there were a higher sense of ethics in the MSM.

Anonymous said...

"Back then, it was still possible for a young reporter to think of himself as a kind of knight who could change the world with his typewriter."

A knight is not unbiased, the classic image of a knight is one of pure good or evil in fact. I dropped out of Journalism school because an instructor informed us that the most important aspect of any news operation was ratings and ad sales. This obvious reality was going to severely cramp my knighthood it seemed to me at the time.

These two factors are the main problems I have with the major media. Reporters who think they are unbiased, but still want to change the world. Can't have both. And the always growing battle for ratings and ad money, would leads to news becoming entertainment rather than journalism (e.g. Heraldo Rivera).

Blogs are mostly amatuerish,by that I mean not profit driven, and generally wear their bias on their sleeves. The important thing to me is they have radically different motivations across the spectrum, unlike the major media. So I can read several, easily discern the various motivations and biases, and come up with a more informed opinion.

marketing_chaoren said...

I too saw your comment on Joi's site, and I venture to take a completely different stance as to the credibility and use of blogging.

You must take blogging for what it is worth. As pointed out by various comments, the credibility of MSM and bloggers alike relies heavily upon personal bias...easy as that. So the true value then becomes, not a useful source for "information" per-say, but a look into the minds of our citizens.

More valuable may be the characteristics and trends that can be extracted from having access to journals of every day consumers.

I blog for the sheer business perspective that I can understand those around me...

So the "tower of Babel" that is present isnt so much for a desire for gaining knowledge that can come from other sources...its a place to understand others, and in turn be useful for those of us who desire to do so.

BR said...

I know this is a cold thread already, but when I saw this recent example of bias via omission by the SF Chronicle and exposed by a blogger, I remembered your site.