Are blogs the new news source? Does the continuing pressure for immediacy at the potential expense of accuracy mean that what we have right here at Blue Oregon is part of the next wave of “journalism?”
This week's events – the issues surrounding Dan Rather and whether Sixty Minutes II jumped the gun in going public with a record of Bush’s national guard service the validity of which is now in question – has less to do with that old and tired canard about the “liberal” media (yeah, liberals like Newhouse, General Electric, Rupert Murdoch), and more to do with the nature of free speech and the nature of journalism.
Each wave of media ultimately reacts to the new technology that fosters more media. In freedom of speech terms this is good. But each wave also required more and more technology, more and more infrastructure and capital investment, meaning that speech was free once you paid for the megaphone, and the megaphone was prohibitively expensive to all but corporations.
Now comes the Internet, and for the first time, access to a volume of people is not limited to those with large checkbooks. Immediacy of result is available to almost anyone. But where are the journalistic ethics of a profession now open to anyone with a PC?
IS there any self-policing (and should there be)? How does the “truth” get sorted out when the new medium is a swarm of bits and bytes, not a trained organization? And if CBS, the New York Times and others lose market share, and have to trim back resources, should we be worried? Yes there may be more voices, and that may be good for speech, but one of the purposes of speech philosophically is to propose and expose government, and if we have no STRONG voices, will some stories not get out? Could bloggers have cracked Watergate? For all that we on the left usually decry huge corporations, is it perhaps worth considering that sometimes they too fulfill a useful purpose?
And who is to say that a multiplicity of smaller voices makes for qualitatively better debate than a few voices that can be heard. Mind you, I’m not defending the pasteurized voices of the alphabet networks, and certainly not the unfair and unbalanced crazy-like-a-Fox, but what if it turns out that the document given Rather was given by a source who is not a partisan Democrat, but a partisan conservative who knew the pressure to go public quickly would propel CBS to action, and created a document good enough to stand up under scrutiny long enough, then collapse? While Rush and O’Reilly and Tony Snow argue this is a Democratic plot, couldn’t it be precisely the reverse? I don’t know. And neither does Limbaugh. And that is the point. How much harm can be done by mass reproduction and forwarding of “news” of suspect credibility. Yes, it may turn out that Dan Rather screwed up. Yes, we have had our Steve Glasses and Janet Cookes. But as a percentage, they are minute. We don’t yet have studies on the accuracy of Internet blogs. But respected academics, at the University of Michigan and elsewhere, have studied gossip (which, to get tenure, they call “informal modes of news communication”). Their conclusion? As speed of communication goes up, and as professionalism goes down, accuracy goes down. Not particularly surprising, but worth considering before the Dan Rather pile up goes on any longer.
Which is why Blue Oregon, as an opinion journal, has a place and why we should think twice before assuming the Internet is a viable alternative to Rather or Brokaw and their, yes, corporate support.