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May 21, 2007

Filed under: journalism»ethics»online

Direct from the Dark of the Basement

When reading the pundits on the editorial page or watching them on the news channels, do you ever find yourself asking: "Who do these people think they are? What qualifies them to speak in front of all of us?"

I do. All the time. And it's not just the looming prospects of job-hunting behind that thought. About a month ago, The New Republic's Jonathan Chait wrote an article criticizing the liberal blog community for being insufficiently concerned with the truth, to which (of course) every leftist on the Internet responded by asking "so who was pro-Iraq War, again?" Lance Mannion also drew attention today to a few writers who continue to trade in the idea that bloggers and writers online are all just delusional losers in their basements, whose rantings are only marginally more coherent than the average sandwhich-board-wearing lunatic.

Who do these people think they are? the writers and pundits ask, not realizing that we've been asking the same thing in return.

But here's the dirty secret for pundits and journalists and movie critics who stand aghast at those angry bloggers: their job is not special. And they know it.

I'm not a blog triumphalist. I don't think wikis will save the world. But the simple fact of the matter is that there's no particular training to become a journalist, or a pundit, or a movie critic. There's no reason to believe that these jobs can't be done as well as anyone--and indeed, once upon a time, they were. There's a reason that movies like His Girl Friday depict journalists as a bunch of slovenly, low-class opportunists: they used to be a bunch of slovenly, low-class opportunists.

Nowadays, if you can find a journalist amid all the cutbacks at major newspapers and media outlets, there seems to be this idea that journalism has become a higher profession. The attitude betrayed by Chait and others is that these writers are better than the public somehow--better informed, better read, and probably better-looking. They're more public than the public, if you believe the hype behind David Broder. It's even infected relatively niche journalism, which is the only way that you could possibly find people like Gregg Easterbrook masquerading as "science writers."

There's nothing wrong with being an unspecialized journalist (Chait's employment history, for example, is a collection of writing credits but no direct political experience). Plenty of people have done it before. Hunter S. Thompson, one of the great heroes to the profession, started working as a news writer because it let him supplement his army wages. The honest truth is that most journalism, for all its mystique and prestige, amounts to picking up the phone and calling people for information. Occasionally, it requires the reporter to get up and actually go somewhere. This is not brain surgery. And obviously, punditry is even less rigorous--got an opinion? You're good to go.

The implication of writers like Chait, or Brian Williams (who commented recently that he didn't like competing against some guy named Vinny in a bathrobe somewhere) is that they've got something we don't. And indeed, they do: you don't get to be a staff writer for TNR or an anchor for a major news network without a lot of connections and a lot of luck. But self-publishing means that now any dog on the Internet could potentially oustrip their audience, while a lot of us have started to think that those tightly-knit political connections are what's wrong with the media in the first place. And frankly, as news has been cut back in the profit-driven environment, I don't think very much of the argument that they have some kind of journalistic integrity that no-one else can claim.

It astonishes me to read pieces by media professionals that trumpet their ignorance of the blog network. They're missing out, and they're missing the point. Bloggers may just be parasites on the journalists who go out and gather the days events--but there are an awful lot of people who get paid to do the same thing, except in print. An editorial page is just a blog without the links (or in some cases, the readership). In many ways, it's a classic irony of economics--the jobs of the "knowledge workers" can now be outsourced, and they don't even have to leave the country--or get paid.

In other words: Who are these people? And why should we care?

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In the best tradition of a post that quotes from Lance Mannion, a fine writer known for saving his recommended links for the end of his posts, I really do recommend his writings about credentialism and the media.

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