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Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Blogs, the "MSM," and Influence

I'm still getting all of my thoughts straight in my head about the Blog Summit. First of all, I recommend's own write-up of the event by blogger David Wise; you can also Google or Technorati what the rest of us are saying. After this one, in fact, I probably won't post on it again. But on to the thing that will get me in trouble . . .

One impression that keeps coming back is the tension in the room between the bloggers and everyone they perceived as "mainstream media." While it's true that there are days when I can't believe anyone would pay money for the daily paper, those are also the days I seem to quote most extensively from it. There is no way I would trade what we have now for a world without print journalists at all; nor do I seriously think that I could trust bloggers to do it all. Our role is becoming clear; we provide analysis, commentary, and help frame the debates. Occasionally someone does some original reporting, but I don't trust myself to do bias-free reporting, so I sure wouldn't trust that from the rest of the blogging class. Bloggers who think we are going to change the world are a little too full of themselves and, frankly, that showed at the Blog Summit. I had fun, met a lot of great people, but there were moments when I was a little afraid to be associated with what I heard.

The feelings seemed at least somewhat reciprocal; Lou Fortis, publisher of the Shepherd Express, described the assembled masses to me in some pretty colorful language. Two audience members who dared to question the overstated importance of blogs were savaged at the summit and have continued to be attacked by attendees on their blogs the last several days. It couldn't have been uglier had the Jets and the Sharks been locked in a room together.

Take the case of Mandy Jenkins, for example. She was the sole employee of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to attend (the boys who are assigned to cover blogs didn't make it), but she came as a blogger, and not as a reporter--she does not write for the paper beyond the blog she has hosted there. When Jenkins tried to make the point that bloggers could not exist without the traditional media--and that most bloggers do not do the kind of original reporting that traditional media do--I could almost literally hear the hair on the back of every conservative neck in the room stand. Here, for example, is part of one attendee's take on what Jenkins said:
Blogger/reporter from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel Mandy Jenkins said that bloggers rely on standard news outlets for the material we post about, that we do little if any real reporting, and that one reason for that is people won't take our calls because we're not "real" reporters.

First, Mandy should pick up a copy of the MJS and count the AP and other news service pieces that are published versus what the staff and stringers are responsible for. She's overlooking the mote in her eye.
And it goes on, in quite the unpleasant tone. Worse is what happened to Jenkins when she tried to defend herself in the comments to this post. This is not the way to win friends and influence people.

Of the liberal bloggers who attended the event (and I count four right now: me, Scott, Ingrid, and Cory--Mark Pocan came in just in time for his session and left quickly afterward, so I'm not counting him; but if there were more, let me know), none of us, as John McAdams did, blast "mainstream media" as "a state of mind." Cory, in particular, demands that they do a better job; I complain about bias and inconsistency, as I did in this post last week. But conservatives are more likely to see the blogger/ traditional media conflict as one of ideology, a conflict on a grander scale than the reality of the situation demands. TeeBee, for example, whose post I quoted above about Mandy Jenkins, champions "Rathergate" as a great success of the blogosphere, leaving out that one, it was driven by professional Republican operatives feeding information to the bloggers and two, it was driven by a desire to distract from the larger narrative of Bush's having not fulfilled his National Guard responsibilities--a fact proved over and over by non-memo evidence. It was a partisan moment, not a blogs v. MSM moment. Other things championed by the (conservative) Wisconsin blogs as victories--vouchers, ethanol, the gas tax--actually have little to do with the blogs; I won't go into it now, but bloggers notching their bedposts over these things are giving themselves too much credit.

That is not to say blogs will never have influence; I think to a certain extent we do now--but only that certain small extent. Seth asked, in what may be the best and most concise phrasing of the question that needs asking, "If conservative bloggers are leaning against [the anti-gay marriage and civil unions] amendment, why did it pass with near unanimous Republican support in two consecutive sessions of the state legislature? Since the right side of the Cheddarsphere maintains close to universal support for the proposed constitutional amendment to restrict public revenue in Wisconsin, why is that amendment having such a tough time gaining Republican legislative support?"

Conservatives are eager to claim bigger victories than they deserve because of their partisan instinct, because of 30 years of perceiving themselves as victims. And it's not just bloggers, either; the Blog Summit's (arguably) biggest name, Charlie Sykes, framed the issue in the same way, allying himself with the bloggers in the audience who dream of being on his show rather than with the people who pay his bills. He knows what the audience wants--and the audience wants validation of their status as scrappy but victorious underdogs instead of a marginally effective mirror of mainstream conservative thought.

That is what makes it so maddening--if not unexpected--for the single most influential media figure in the state to be called anything other than "mainstream."

A significant portion of Charlie's schtick--and a significant portion of the self-identity of those who hang on his every word--is that of victimized minority, oozing righteous indignation. It's that schtick that has made talk radio, particularly conservative radio, the biggest format out there. It's the schtick that made Rush famous, that made O'Reilly famous. Even in absolute domination, the victimhood schtick must be maintained; the New Yorker said of O'Reilly,
it's hard to be straight-ahead if you're essentially oppositional and the people you like are in power, if the guests you most want will not appear on your show, and if it's nearly impossible to demonstrate the existence of the trends you have made it your mission to oppose.
That's why he has to go on David Letterman and repeat what he knows to be lies.

But the schtick is misleading; there is no legitimate way that Charlie can claim somehow to be the minority when more people listen to him than anyone else. As I said several times to several people--including Charlie--at the blog summit, the one "blogger" who might have a real impact on the elections this fall will be Charlie Sykes, but not because of his blog. It will be because his is the biggest traditional media megaphone, and the traditional media still dominate. Period. Any bloggers who might feel influential will feel that way only because Sykes will amplify what they say through his megaphone--a megaphone reserved only for those who agree with him and his audience.

Talk-radio host Jessica McBride tries to defend talk radio as being not "mainstream":
I consider talk radio more akin to blogging than it resembles the "traditional/mainstream" media. I guess that's because, to me, it's about content, not ownership. I admit this is only one way to look at the phenomenon. But, for conservatives, there's been a media revolution that I would date to the Reagan-era deregulation of the media and repeal of the Fairness Doctrine. Before that era, conservative viewpoints largely were locked out of the dominant traditional media. The repeal of the Fairness Doctrine led to the growth of modern talk radio as we know it. Conservatives felt locked out of the pages of traditional newspapers and TV networks, so they turned to a different medium--radio.

In some ways, talk radio resembles blogs. It's opinionated. Its hosts sometimes come from different walks of life than traditional media columnists (such as Jeff Wagner, a former federal prosecutor). They offer an alternative viewpoint to that which prevails in the MSM. I.e. a conservative one. They are closer to the viewpoints of the conservative public (and empower them through giving an outlet to callers' voices) than is the MSM, in my opinion [. . .]
We could go around on what effect the death of the Fairness Doctrine may have really had, but, regardless, we can see that the primary distinction McBride draws between talk radio and the "MSM" is the "alternative viewpoint." This goes directly back to Scott's translation of John McAdams's observation that "mainstream media is a state of mind": Mainstream media is “whomever I disagree with.”

McAdams and McBride drop by that post of Scott's to defend themselves in the comments (aren't comment sections wonderful?). McAdams writes,
It happens that I do disagree with the liberalism of the mainstream media. But quite independent of that, there is a particular worldview there. Think of it as a system of psychological identification. People who like and feel close to the New York Times, National Public Radio, journalism schools and so on are “mainstream media.” People who are suspicious of all of those and critical of all of those aren’t “mainstream media.”

Working for Journal Communications (as Sykes does) doesn’t make one “mainstream media." Being contemptious of talk radio and bloggers does.
So the us-against-them mentality--though ostensibly divorced from ideology--still is the deciding factor. Ironically, I've found bloggers, particularly conservative ones, to be more intensely contemptuous of the "mainstream media" than vice-versa. (See Paul Waldman's description of Media Matters for America for a good primer on the liberal bloggers' relationship with the press.)

McBride's post on talk radio is not all about conservative ideology as the determining factor in mainstreaminess. She does tack on liberals as an afterthought: "Of course, liberal blogs are important too," she writes. How nice of her to remember us. But in another post McBride wrote after the Blog Summit, she also explains why blogs are not the deciding factor in politics just yet:
Blogs can be tip sheets for/frame issues for talk radio. Why do leggies and politicians care about blogs? On the conservative side of the spectrum, they care in part because talk radio hosts read blogs and use them as indicators of where the base is headed. And if blogs break a political story the MSM ignores, talk radio can lift it into a mainstream audience.
What candidates and legislators fear is not bloggers. What they fear is that biggest megaphone in the state, conservative talk radio. Even in McBride's attempts to be equitable to Democratic and liberal bloggers, she lays bare the difference in the size of our amplifiers.

Until there is parity in media in this state, liberal bloggers and liberal voices will never have the kind of pull that Charlie Sykes gets just going to work in the morning. That makes him a hell of a lot more mainstream than any blogger.

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