Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Nicholas Lehman in the New Yorker

Encouraging me to start an on-line newspaper, my Dad recently sent me a New Yorker magazine article from the August 7 &14 issue, called Amateur Hour, written by Nicholas Lehman. It’s about the claim, by many bloggers, that we are part of a movement to more or less overthrow the traditional media, and, by extension, the existing order of society.

I suspect that posts about blogging are recursive to the point of boredom for readers. On the other hand, most blogs are about the musings of their writers, and lately I’ve been musing most on two things:

1) What direction should this blog go, if I think of it as one current in the large stream of the cultural phenomenon that is the blogosphere?

2) How much potential does the medium really have to effect the kind of social justice change I would like to see?

Overall, I thought the New Yorker article was meant to minimize the potential of blogs to create social change. Lehman used a lot of words like “responsible,” “objective,” and “independent,” to differentiate traditional journalists and traditional journalism from bloggers, but didn't really define the criteria he used to decide which writers deserve such high praise. Few, in my opinion, including Seymour Hersh and Jane Mayer, who are luckily thriving at The New Yorker, and Robert Scheer, Greg Palast and countless others who have been pushed out of American newsrooms during the ongoing purge, to seek publication through their own Internet syndication, occasional essays in political journals, or through foreign presses.

More importantly, Lehman neglected to point out the glitch in the system: the editorial decisions that take the work of smart, persistent, well-funded, well-trained, experienced investigative reporters, and consign it to the back pages or hold it out of the print media altogether.

For example, he wrote about the reporting that uncovered the massive civil liberties violations of the Bush Administration, but forgot to mention that the paper where that story was written, The New York Times, held onto the story for more than a year, between when it was written by James Risen and Eric Lichtblau – before the November 2004 Presidential election – and when it was finally published in December 2005. See the most recent story here.

Bloggers who hold out hope for this medium as a democracy-builder don’t dispute that trained, experienced, paid reporters could provide the proper check and balance to our government-run-amok. We simply point out, over and over, that editorial decisions designed to protect the current turf of both political and corporate overlords interfere immeasurably with that process.

At the same time, I think most thoughtful bloggers are acutely aware of the limitations of the medium. Every minute that enraged progressives and libertarians, and every shade between, are sitting in our pajamas, pounding on our keyboards in apoplectic rage, or tickling them in weary resignation, we are not out in the streets banging pots and pans, demanding that the bastards - from the locals on up to the feds - get the hell out and make room for some fresh ideas and new people to turn those ideas into real policies and real change in the world.

I agree with Lehman that the ease of access to blogs means that even people who don’t have a broad historical or cultural perspective, don’t bother too much with facts, don’t write very well and don’t combine their blogging with bricks-and-mortar community-building can post their two cents worth just as much as the knowledgeable, eloquent and street-active.

I’m uneasy with the undertone of Lehman’s essay; he seems to be trying to defang blogging and citizen journalism by encouraging New Yorker readers to tuck it all in the “Banal” file and pay it no attention.

But I’m equally uneasy with the gung-ho triumphalism of some of the most prominent bloggers. Blogging alone will not bring about real change.

What it can do is connect likeminded people until they meet face to face, and bring support and encouragement to those who feel, accurately or not, that their hopes and dreams for the future are being represented in neither the halls of power nor in the pages of their daily newspapers.


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