Libby Trial Meta: Bloggers Meet the Press
No, Monisignor Tim has not invited us on the Sunday morning show. As if! Do you want to see all of insider Washington clutching their pacemakers at once? Er. . . don't answer that.
Actually, allow me to roll back the snark, because I want to speak in the same spirit of basic human respect and dialogue that has informally developed as I have gotten to know at least a handful of the big reporters in the Libby media room. In good faith, let me address some of the standard defenses offered of the criticisms we in the blogosphere typically make of the establishment media. These are some of the establishment's standard criticisms of our criticisms, followed by my responses. Let me be clear: I'm not suggesting anyone has made these arguments to me this week. I'm just reprising some old standards.
Here they are, in no particular order:
Rashomon: This argument says different people see different things watching the same thing. The best a reporter can do is be accurate about the facts of what they hear and see so the public can sort out the rest.
I have some sympathy with this argument, to a point. I am, after all, a psychology guy, and a social scientist. I get the ways perception and selective attention, cognition and emotion all mix together to bring about different points of view. On the other hand, I'm not a relativist. There is such a thing as truth, and in science, we don't just rely on one study to establish a pattern, but we also do meta-analysis to determine persistent, enduring trends and verifiable effect sizes of the interactions of different variables as they emerge repeatedly over time.
Editors: This argument says bloggers lack accuracy because they lack supervision: they lack editors who can support fact checking of what they do.
Not too many bloggers see themselves as reporters, though some do, and others do occasional reporting on specific stories. Most lack the resources to assign people to the places where news stories are breaking. Occasionally, bloggers bring their video cameras to the site of potential news events and break news by recording what happens, as George Allen knows all too well. Jason Leopold did atrocious, unsupported and unsupportable "reporting" on the Plame story, and sites like this one never linked to his work because we never trusted it, much to the consternation of some of our readers. But the whole argument about editors misses a larger point.
For sites that allow commenters, our readers are our editors. It's true, we miss a lot of typos, and frankly, we often don't care. We care more about getting the facts and the story right, and we embed hyperlinks so as to "show our work." Commenters let us know when we've screwed up, and even if our home communities don't, people elsewhere in the blogosphere take shots at us if we get something factually wrong. Those of us who care about accuracy and truth make corrections or respond (facts, as we all know, have a well known liberal bias). On the other hand, many people commonly thought of as bloggers, mostly on the conservative side of the political spectrum, don't allow commenters on their sites. Howie Kurtz's frequent guest on Reliable Sources, Glenn Reynolds, comes to mind. Instapundit has no relation to reality or truth in his writing, and he could I suppose benefit from an editor. He's just a propagandist and a fabulist.
This argument about editors misses the point that many of us operate from an open source model of editorial control, rather than a top down one. I have thousands of editors when I write, at least. What's more, editors also, in the establishment media, assign stories and coverage. We bloggers write what we choose to write, but we make choices based not only on our own interests and judgments, but also informed by the interests and continuous, interactive feedback and suggestions coming from our online communities. . . for those of us who respond to and promote community interaction.
Conspiracy: Members of the establishment media may at times implicitly concede some of our criticisms of their failures on specific stories, but they hasten to argue there is no conspiracy to favor one side or the other in national or political coverage.
My good friend Digby wonders if there can possibly be a group of less self-aware people than the members of our Washington press corps and pundit class. I don't get the sense, based on my direct experience this week, that the people I met are any more or less self-aware as a group than anyone else, on a personal level. I do however think that elite Washington in general lacks systemic or institutional self-awareness on many levels, but that's another matter, one more of systems and institutions than of individual reporters.
When establishment media figures say, as they still do, that no one was against the war before the decision to invade Iraq (save perhaps Scott Ritter), they really mean and believe it, because their whole world view of who comprises "everyone" inhabits the media-governmental class of DC. They just don't see any further. It's a remarkable thing, a cultural bubble. There's no conscious conspiracy in that, in my view, but it is a bubble sustained by conscious institutional choices and incentive systems.
Punditry is populated by former reporters who make their bones and gain credibility within this DC insider class. Opinion columns are doled out as rewards for years of reporting things up close in Washington. The result is a kind of hothouse garden of carefully selected rare flora carefully cultivated to see the world from within a beltway perspective. Republicans have been consciously conspiring to take advantage of this dynamic since the Goldwater era, so on that level, the feeding of consistently toxic disinformation into the DC media swamp is in fact a conspiracy, but it's not always one in which reporters are consciously complicit: they just operate from within the world as it exists for them.
Editors are selected by the corporate, business side of our media outlets so as not to assign or propel stories that will radically challenge the reigning status quo, because pro-big business politics that eschew the media fairness doctrine and which support media consolidation are good for the quarterly bottom line. Is that a conspiracy? On the level of many, even most, individual reporters, it is not. On the level of the creation and maintenance of our current media, governmental, institutional status quo, the answer is far more complex, and depends on whom you're discussing. Some media figures are in on the con, and some are not.
On another level, the process of watching and participating in reporting of Libby's voir dire this week showed me something in real time that I had not fully comprehended before. Watching the closed circuit feed of the process in a room with the media helped me see how collegiality and professional courtesy allow reporters to help each other catch quotes accurately for the sake of their reporting. People can ask questions and check their impressions with each other, through the same kind of community review process we so value in the online community. This is a good thing.
There's also a drawback to this, though, and it's subtle: people watching the same thing in the same room organically influence each other. If one person has a spontaneous reaction to whatever happens, others are exposed to it. It may simply be laughter, or surprise, or a quick hypothesis of what may be happening during a sidebar conversation. The result is we all shape each other's emerging interpretations of what we are seeing, and what it all means. This tends to support a consensus point of view, a uniformity of understanding.
In other words, this is the process of the creation of DC conventional wisdom in real time. I found it took a conscious effort each night when I did my evening wrap up of the day's events not simply to relay the emerging consensus view of the day as presented so well by my new colleagues, but instead to think differently and independently, from my own point of view, using my own voice. Were I to become a regular member of this little social/professional group, I expect this would only become more difficult. I'm a people person, and I am known for my ability to empathize with and understand those close to me, which is another way of saying I can absorb the perspectives of those around me rather well. That's not a matter of conspiracy: it's a human matter of empathy. This actually is true of all people: we are, after all, a social species.
Competency: This argument says that bloggers who know nothing of reporting, or what's involved in it, lack the competence to criticize that which they do not understand.
Here's the general metaphor: if a surgeon begins surgery, finds something unexpected and changes the procedure, yielding results afterward that are unexpected, the patient may feel inclined to criticize, but the patient lacks the competence to judge the choices made by the surgeon, unless he or she is also a trained surgeon. You can spin out a similar metaphor on a more mundane level, say, using a car mechanic as an example.
Let me first present the most sympathetic response to this argument. Bloggers and consumers of information on the Internet on a daily basis have access to a much larger universe of diverse perspectives and sources than the reporter on the scene can find and absorb. While I was live blogging Libby, I could not at all keep up with everything else happening in the news or the world, and could barely even keep up with what the other reporters in the room were writing and saying about the same trial process. Being on an email list or getting news clippings sent to you can help, but without the time to read and review all this information, you just can't digest it all.
In that sense, many bloggers don't understand the level of incompatibility between doing first rate, primary source reporting and simultaneously keeping up with everything else. The reporters in the room with me are better at capturing quotes and checking facts on quick turnaround than I am: they're trained to do it. I do have some sympathy for the argument that many bloggers don't fully understand, on a visceral level, the complexity of the demands placed on reporters in this position, who, through all this, must produce columns on deadline and also occasionally fight with editors for placement of their work.
But there's also a problem: this argument is one that can logically be applied to say that no one can criticize the work of a car mechanic or a surgeon, or for that matter, a reporter, unless they share the same professional training or at least, exposure. In other words, this is fundamentally an elitist protection argument, a unilateral declaration of blanket immunity from outsider criticism. When there's a claim against the work of a professional, it must be subject to adjudication on the merits, perhaps with the help of other experts.
We who are offering bracing criticism are the readers, the people formerly known as the audience, the public, and our calls for reform are legitimate. We want our establishment media outlets to report the truth in the service of the public interest, and we've been calling the establishment to account for repeatedly failing to do so. That's a valid criticism that the establishment press not only should not resist, but should welcome and seek out. Defensiveness is human, and reporters feel already under siege as news outlets continue to cut staff and cut budgets: livelihoods in the Internet age are at risk. However, while establishment media defensiveness may be understandable, the competency argument against the criticisms we in the public offer is fundamentally illegitimate.
I mentioned the other day that we in the blogosphere benefit structurally from the lack of deadlines. We can take a little longer on stories that capture our interest, do research, publishing when we choose. This allows us to do more connecting of the dots on the meta level that a reporter covering the story of the day typically cannot. We can do more to comprehend context, see how today's events connect to yesterday's events, decipher trends, and so on. Moreover, we can take as much space as we like, as much as our readers can patiently bear.
Not only is all that hard or impossible to do when reporting breaking news on deadline every day, it's hard for the on-the-ground reporter to sort out what potential meta-trends or arguments are real, based on solid, longitudinal reporting and examination of events, and which are just spin, hype or cant. As it turns out, a belief that the Bush administration or the Republican establishment is lying on any number of fronts is a rational, reasonable view based on the preponderance of evidence available (and was in 2001 as well). A belief that liberal views are extreme or in the small minority does not hold up to empirical national polling (and did not in 2001), though these views are certainly "extreme" in the protected world of DC's conventional wisdom.
No matter the popular view or the historical trend, here's the reporter's dilemma: being a reporter means dancing a difficult dance of applied skepticism that must take as its responsibility to doubt even the prevailing empirical point of view when seeking to interpret new events (and all reporting is also interpretation). Even granting the extreme de facto favoritism of DC insider conservatism over the last few decades in the media, it's possible, in other words, that tomorrow a member of the current Republican establishment can tell the truth! Reporters must remain open to all possibilities, to the best of their abilities.
Most of our media establishment has yet to come to terms, not only with the prevailing systemic favoritism of conservative frames of reference and disinformation of recent decades, but also with the newly emergent paradigm shift whereby Republicans are in fact quite wrong, empirically, about any number of issues (social security, health care, foriegn policy, etc.). The media establishment as a group has not yet comprehended that the modern GOP establishment has habitually been purposely, consciously lying to and manipulating members of the media for, literally, decades. Most reporters who have come of age professionally since 1980 have not yet grasped that their professional incubation has included systemic and ideological influences that have warped their interpretations of events, even their choices about what events are relevant to report. This includes those reporters who think of themselves, privately, as generally "liberal" people.
Fundamentally, the establishment media has not come to terms with the open source model of the understanding of events, which incorporates perspectives from outside of the DC social bubble. To many reporters and pundits, we outsiders represent an undifferentiated, threatening mass, a horde who shrieks critique and whose collective work also threatens their livelihoods. There I was, blogging the trial by their side without being paid for it. How would you feel about someone showing up at your place of work to do more or less what you do, for free? What's more, to many in the media, TPM, Instapundit, MyDD, LittleGreenFootballs, Hullabaloo, Matt Drudge, Eschaton or Firedoglake are all more or less alike, when in fact they are all extremely different on several levels.
Conclusion: I think we outsiders are better positioned, structurally, to do meta-analysis of stories and trends in political news. In many respects, relative to reporters, we have more time and more people available to do it. I think the selection of members of the punditocracy more or less exclusively from the right wing media spectrum, right wing funded think tanks, and exclusive of liberals from outside the DC media establishment structurally perverts our understanding of public life. The results, over time, manifest themselves in successively more colossal failures in communal life and public policy paid for in blood and breath, so that responsibility for fiascoes like Katrina and the occupation and invasion of Iraq rests partly on the shoulders of our elite media establishments, our pundits, their editors and editorial boards. Any news panel that expects a reporter/media figure like Andrea Mitchell to function as a stand in and counterweight to Bill Kristol is not a balanced panel. Try instead Duncan Black, if he's willing to do it.
There are things our establishment reporters and media establishments do that we in the blogosphere do not do as well, and which we lack the resources to do consistently well. But there are also things we do better than our establishment media outlets and reporters do. There seems to me to be some room for complimentarity here, and business models must sort themselves out as they will. Keith Olbermann, after all, seems to be helping MSNBC's bottom line.
I'll end where I began: we bloggers don't expect to be invited on Meet the Press anytime soon, though Mike Stark was a guest on Reliable Sources this week, so who knows? Collectively, we're in new, uncharted territory, and as one among a "posse" (not a "pool") of bloggers covering the Libby trial, I'm just glad to have some small part in sorting out what the best model for the future will be, in the service of the public interest.