Tilting at Blog Windmills

I've been meaning to write something about the latest blog-bashing
from the keyboard of Columbia J-school dean Nicholas Lemann but haven't
had the time. Thankfully, New York Press's Russ Smith and my friend Bob
have taken care of the task for me. Before quoting from them,
here's a taste of Lemann's sour grapes, actually saying that the legacy media never have been elitist and, in fact, are reflective of the average American:

American journalism began, roughly speaking, on the
later Stuart
Britain model; during Colonial times it was dominated by fiery
political speechmakers, like Thomas Paine. All those uplifting
statements by the Founders about freedom of the press were almost
certainly produced with pamphleteers in mind. When, in the early
nineteenth century, political parties and fast cylinder printing
presses developed, American journalism became mainly a branch of the
party system, with very little pretense to neutral authority or
ownership of the facts.

A related development was the
sensational penny press, which served the big cities, whose populations
were swollen with immigrants from rural America and abroad. It produced
powerful local newspapers, but it’s hard to think of them as
the priesthood model. William Randolph Hearst’s New York
papers, the
leading examples, were flamboyant, populist, opinionated, and
thoroughly disreputable. They influenced politics, but that is
different from saying, as Glenn Reynolds says of the Hearst papers,
that they “set the agenda for public discussion.”
Most of the formal
means of generating information that are familiar in America
today—objective journalism is only one; others are modern
research, professional licensing, and think tanks—were
created, in the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, explicitly to counter
the populist inclinations of various institutions, one of which was the
big media.

In fact, what the prophets of Internet
journalism believe themselves to be fighting
against—journalism in the
hands of an enthroned few, who speak in a voice of phony, unearned
authority to the passive masses—is, as a historical
phenomenon, mainly
a straw man. Even after the Second World War, some American cities
still had several furiously battling papers, on the model of
“The Front
Page.” There were always small political magazines of all
and books written in the spirit of the old pamphlets, and, later in the
twentieth century, alternative weeklies and dissenting journalists like
I. F. Stone. When journalism was at its most blandly
authoritative—probably in the period when the three
broadcast networks were in their heyday and local newspaper monopoly
was beginning to become the rule—so were American politics
and culture,
and you have to be very media-centric to believe that the press
established the tone of national life rather than vice versa.

There's lots more at the link if you feel like slogging through
Lemann's run-on sentences and constipated pomposity. I'll spare the
non-masochists out there by moving on to Cox's response:

is the fourth time I've "encountered" Lemann and, so far, I have found
him to be little more than a Luddite with an Ivy-encrusted Chair -
someone who ought to be dismissed out of hand on the topic of citizen
is an agenda-driven hack who tips his hand in his most recent diatribe
when he writes "Journalism is not in a period of maximal
self-confidence right now, and the Internet’s cheerleaders
practically laboratory specimens of maximal self-confidence. They have
got the rhetorical upper hand; traditional journalists answering their
challenges often sound either clueless or cowed and apologetic."

Lemann offers up a sad attempt by a high priest of the "legacy media"
to take back the rhetorical battlefield by denigrating any and all
efforts to advance a concept of journalism without a priesthood while
claiming there is no such priesthood and rallying the "faithful". [...]

jumps out at me in reading his piece, is that Lemann is in such a great
position to be a force for good in the development of citizen
journalism and instead uses his bully pulpit to find fault and tear
down. It is a testament to the potential for small-mindedness among
those entrusted with a great responsibility, serving as Dean for one of
the leading journalism schools in the world.
experience with Lemann came at a special screening of George Clooney's
Good Night and Good Luck last fall. After the film Lemann made a little
speech which conflated his reaction to a New York Times column by John
Tierney which took issue with the liberal bent of J-school profs and
those bloggers who label the media as "MSM" (i.e., conservative
bloggers who believe the media is biased to the left). He then asked
for questions for the panel which he would repeat into his microphone
so the question could be picked up on the video tape that was being
made of the event.
can read all about it in my post from that night - Good Night, Good Luck
and Good Riddance

you will see if you watch the video in the post I've linked, after
attacking conservative bloggers he REFUSED to address my question to
the panel, instead repeatedly demanding that I "justify" the premise of
my question (something he failed to demand of any other audience

Smith's response

There’s a case to be made that the Internet
is clogged with far too
many delusional blowhards who really believe that their blogs are
irrevocably altering the media landscape, but Lemann didn’t
make it.
Instead, perhaps trying to defend a profession, his profession,
been forced to adapt to new technology, Lemann criticized, in a
typically condescending way, the men and women who really have made a
“positive” and “affirmative”
contribution to politics and popular

It’s Lemann, however, who
isn’t up to the challenge
of making a cogent argument about the influence and potential power of
the bloggers. It’s inconceivable, for example, that the dean
of a
journalism school and New Yorker staff writer could write a lengthy
article about the web and not once mention the name of Matt Drudge.
Even Frank Rich, who until a few years ago dismissed Drudge, the true
pioneer of Internet power, as a “cyber gossip,” now
refers to him less
derisively. It could be Lemann’s in a cocoon of
self-denial—even in the
post-William Shawn era of The New Yorker—but it’s
hard to fathom that
he doesn’t realize his peers, the
“professional” journalists, log onto
Drudge daily.

In addition, another site
that’s now a regular
online stop for not only journalists—professional or
political enthusiasts and politicians as well, is Real Clear Politics,
which provides a daily and non-partisan compendium of articles printed
in leading newspapers and magazines, along with a comprehensive list of
polling results, talk show transcripts, links and its own RCP blog,
which, like the entrepreneurs who run the site, John McIntyre and Tom
Bevan, tilts conservative.

In an attempt to debunk Internet
journalism, Lemann
compares this recent phenomenon to over 100 years ago when tabloid king
William Randolph Hearst sold millions of newspapers every day. He
doesn’t resort to the cliché “yellow
journalism,” but it’s a reasonable
guess that was his thought.

The following excerpt from
“Amateur Hour” seals the
case that Lemann was ill-equipped to take on Kos or Reynolds.
“Most of
the formal means of generating information that are familiar in America
today—objective journalism is only one; others are modern
research, professional licensing, and think tanks—were
created, in the
late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, explicitly to counter
the populist inclinations of various institutions, one of which was the
big media.”

Does Lemann really think that
journalism” exists today? If so, he really ought to be
steered away
from writing about the media by New Yorker editor David Remnick. One
need only to look at the front-page articles in The New York
Nagourney, who doesn’t hide his preference for Democrats, is
just the
most egregious example—to see that this isn’t true.
Ditto for the
Washington Times’ Donald Lambro, who might be the only
journalist today
who thinks the Republicans might not lose Congressional seats this
November, or the Associated Press, a once reputable news agency that
lost its currency years ago. And let’s not even get into the
bias of
the British travesty known as Reuters.

Lemann does cite the
blogosphere’s role in exposing
Dan Rather’s bogus story on 60 Minutes in 2004 about
President Bush’s
National Guard Service, but it’s a glancing (and bitter)
mention that
understates the profound influence it had on John Kerry’s
chances. As I said, there’s a lot of bluster, wacky
theories, and ugly racial slurs (Maryland’s U.S. Senate
Michael Steele, a decent and bright man who’s been slimed by
bloggers for committing the sin of being a black Republican, is one
prime example), to be found on the Internet, but the entire media
industry has benefited from the likes of Reynolds and Kos, even if it
means that the influence, and perhaps jobs, of Lemann’s
companions have suffered as a result.

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Matthew Sheffield's picture