Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- January 16, 2007

Mainstream Media to Bloggers: Bug Off.

Ernest Partridge,

The internet has the mainstream journalists worried, and for good reason.

As the establishment sees it, millions of pajama clad amateurs are sitting at home pounding their keyboards and then uploading their uninformed, unedited and unrefined streams of consciousness, while print media circulation and TV News ratings continue to fall.

Accordingly, NBC’s Brian Williams laments that as the public abandons the mainstream media, the nation will "miss the next great book or the next great idea, or that we will fail to meet the next great challenge... because we are too busy celebrating ourselves."

Despite the internet’s manifest shortcomings, the Pew Research Center reports that in November, 2004, 29% of the adult population was getting its news from the internet.

The mainstream pros and pundits take a dim view of the internet. On ABC’s “This Week,” George Will opined:  "It’s about narcissism. So much of what is done on the web is people getting on there and writing their diaries as though everyone ought to care about everyone’s inner turmoils. I mean, it’s extraordinary.” (December 12, 2006).

And CBS alumnus
Eric Engberg reflects:

... unlike journalists, some blog operators who are quick to trash the MSM not only don’t care about the veracity of the stories they are spreading, they do not understand when there is a live hand grenade on their keyboard. They appear not to care. Their concern is for controversy and "hits."

... [G]iven their lack of expertise, standards and, yes, humility, the chances of the bloggers replacing mainstream journalism are about as good as the parasite replacing the dog it fastens on.

And yet, if Pew Research and other opinion polls are to be believed, the internet is doing just that: replacing mainstream journalism.

But while the mainstream media is quick to blame the internet and the public for its declining relevance, it has scarcely a word to say about the primary cause of its troubles: namely, the mainstream media. The MSM is being undone by the convergence of three factors: people have memories, the advent of Google, and the permanence of the printed word.

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line, Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it. (Omar Khayyam).

Thus the MSM today stands condemned by its own record: by crucially important news untold, and by lies and misinformation told. Untold: the full extent of the Iran-Contra scandal, George Bush’s earlier drug addiction and his “early departure” from his Air National Guard obligation, the failure of UN inspectors to find WMDs in pre-war Iraq, electronic voting irregularities and fraud in the last four national elections. Lies and misinformation told: Bill Clinton’s alleged (and eventually unfounded) misdeeds in the Whitewater affair, “travelgate,” “filegate,” etc., Al Gore’s claim to have “invented the internet,” Judith Miller’s New York Times reports on Saddam’s alleged WMD’s, the Swift-Boat smear of John Kerry.

The internet is a spontaneous public response to these failures.

It was different fifty years ago, in the days of Edward R. Murrow, Howard K. Smith, Edward P.Morgan, and Eric Sevaried, and as recently as thirty years ago, when The Washington Post was managed by Ben Bradlee and owned by Katherine Graham, who allowed two young reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, to investigate unhindered, come hell or high Watergate. Back then there were standards: independence, objectivity, investigation and research, confirmation of sources, unhindered presentation of authenticated facts.

The movie, “Good Night and Good Luck” accurately portrays the “wall of non-interference” between the CBS Network’s News and Public Affairs Division, and the remaining operations of that commercial enterprise. That “wall” was likewise in effect in the other networks, ABC and NBC. All three networks accepted the considerable financial losses incurred by News and Public Affairs, in recognition of the fact that they were using the public airwaves and that they were required, by the Federal Communications Act, to operate in "the public interest, convenience, or necessity."

All that is gone now, replaced by the Milton Friedman rule: “the social responsibility of business is to increase its profits” (NYT, September 13, 1970). Shoved into the marketplace, TV News has morphed into “info-tainment.,” and commenced a race to the bottom – a race which, lamentably, is still "in progress.”  And the print media follows, as more and more independent publications are absorbed into fewer and fewer giant media conglomerates.

In this vast wasteland of trivia and distraction, a few admirable remnants of responsible journalism are tolerated:  Charlie Savage in Boston, Paul Krugman, Bob Herbert and Frank Rich at the New York Times, Dan Froomkin and E. J. Dionne at the Washington Post, columnists Molly Ivins and Helen Thomas, and virtually alone on Cable TV News, the courageous and uncompromised voice of Keith Olbermann.  But these are the exceptions, and they are in constant peril, as Phil Donahue, Ashleigh Banfield and Dan Rather can testify.

Into the depopulated media niche that was formerly comprised of  independent and “reality-oriented” journalists, has come the internet, presenting news and offering opinion that is rarely found in the mainstream media.  And admittedly, this news and opinion is accompanied by the undisciplined outpouring from the hordes of narcissistic, ill-informed, naively opinionated amateurs that annoy the likes of George Will. The emergence of this new media is timely, significant and also perhaps inevitable and irrepressible.

It has happened many times before. When established media becomes the obedient servant of the governing elites and diverse and dissenting opinion is withheld from the public, new media emerge, often in the “underground” and often brutally suppressed by the government. In the American Revolution, there were the “Committees of Correspondence.” In the pre-Glasnost Soviet Union, print media were smuggled in and broadcasts were beamed in from the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Within the Soviet Union, “Samizdat” emerged: the production and circulation of laboriously typed manuscripts, at great personal risk to those who wrote, duplicated and distributed these works. (See my “The American Samizdat” ). During the reign of the Shah, Iranian dissidents duplicated and distributed audiotapes, and the protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989 communicated with “the outside world” through FAXes and the nascent internet.

The complaint of establishment journalists that the internet is composed overwhelmingly of worthless junk is difficult to respond to, for the plain and simple reason that it is true. But it is an irrelevant truth. There are gems amongst the garbage – the “blogorrhea” as John McQuaid aptly calls it. He writes: “if there are [as reported, almost] 100 million blogs, if only 1 percent of them don’t suck, and 1 percent of those are excellent, and 1 percent of those are works of true, George Will-approved genius, that’s 100 “genius” blogs. There’s got to be a Paine or a Franklin in there somewhere.”

And that one percent of one percent (10,000) of “excellent” websites contain a wealth of news and opinion, not to be found in the mainstream media.

  • Selections from the free and independent foreign press: Le Monde from France, The Guardian in England, The Globe and Mail in Toronto, Canada, just to name a few.

  • Selections from the remnant liberal and progressive publications.

  • Reports from self-exiled professional journalists who choose to work outside the establishment, such as Greg Palast, Robert Parry, Josh Marshall, and Chris Floyd.

  • Informed opinion from former government officials, such as Paul Craig Roberts, Brent Budowsky, John Dean, Elizabeth de la Vega, Karen Kwiatkowsky and Ray McGovern.

  • Analyses by seasoned academics such as Robert Jensen, Gary Leupp, George Lakoff, Juan Cole, and Noam Chomsky.

I could name hundreds more, equally worthy of mention. But these are a few names that come immediately to mind.

Back in the days when the mainstream media was, to some degree, responsible and reliable, the “filtering” of incoming material was performed by editors and reviewers. (A task that I have performed hundreds of times in my academic career, rejecting a vast majority of manuscripts sent to me for review).

Given the overwhelming glut of unedited and unreviewed words spewed out in the internet, each individual reader must now become his and her personal “editor.” Here are some guidelines for internet users who must rake through all the “blogorrhea” to find the gems therein.

  • Check out the foreign press websites, and also the many websites that select items from the foreign press. In addition, visit the websites of print publications that you have learned to trust. (E.g., The New Yorker, The Nation, The New York Review, etc.)

  • Check the qualifications of the writers. But be open to the possibility that some “amateur” might have something to say. Remember that Tom Paine’s profession was a corset-maker. And Gore Vidal is a college drop-out.

  • Study the art and science of critical thinking, and thus acquire a functioning “BS Detector.” Acquaint yourself with common fallacies and propaganda techniques. For many years, I have assigned, and highly recommend, Logic and Contemporary Rhetoric by Howard Kahane, (Wadsworth). There are numerous other excellent texts, which you can find at your local college bookstore. (For more about critical thinking, see my "That's Just Your Opinion").

  • Use your memory, or failing that, use Google to search out the past record of the mainstream media, its reporters and its commentators. For example, read the unanimous MSM praise of Colin Powell’s eventually discredited February 2003 speech to the Security Council.

  •  Applying these skills, find out which writers are worth reading, and which are not.

Finally, do not lament the plight of the mainstream media – the declining circulations and ratings. Instead, accelerate the process. Boycott the sponsors of the info-tainment, and encourage others to do so. The mainstream media are, fundamentally, businesses with responsibilities to their stockholders. Facing serious economic losses, at least some of the MSM might at last get the message from the public and decide to practice authentic journalism again.

In the meantime, support your favorite websites. Many rely entirely on user donations.

Copyright 2007, by Ernest Partridge


Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .