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The News About the Internet

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The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s blog at The Atlantic, which received about 13 million page views in June 2009, according to its own tally

But the Internet is not just for wunderkinder. It offers a podium to Americans of all ages and backgrounds who are flush with ideas but lack the means to transmit them. A good example is Marcy Wheeler, a resident of Ann Arbor, Michigan, who earned a doctorate in comparative literature from the University of Michigan and then went to work as a consultant for the auto industry. She first began blogging in 2004, gaining notice for her posts on the Valerie Plame leak case; in early 2007 she “liveblogged” the Lewis Libby trial. Later that year, after giving up her consulting job, she began blogging full-time for FireDogLake, a leftist blog collective, where she now concentrates on torture, warrantless wiretapping, and the auto bailout. I first learned of Wheeler last April, when her name appeared in a front-page article in The New York Times about the release of Bush-era memos on interrogation techniques. Through a close reading of the documents, Wheeler was able to conclude that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed had been waterboarded 183 times in one month. This revelation was quickly picked up by The Huffington Post, and soon thereafter it showed up in the Times.

The idea that our work is parasitical is farcical,” Wheeler told me by phone. “There’s a lot of good, original work in the blogosphere. Half of all journalists look at the blogosphere when working on a story.” At the same time, she said, “I’m happy to admit I’m still utterly reliant on journalists. You can’t have a conversation [about torture] without talking about Jane Mayer [of The New Yorker],” she said. Wheeler also praised Dana Priest and Joby Warrick of The Washington Post and James Risen and Douglas Jehl of The New York Times. “We ought to be talking about a symbiotic rather than a parasitical relationship,” she told me. What disturbs bloggers, she added, are those journalists who reside in “the Village”—shorthand, she said,

for the compliant, unquestioning, conventional wisdom that comes out of Washington. It’s the world of the Peggy Noonans and David Broders, who are interested only in the horserace or in maintaining the status quo they’re part of.

The blogosphere, by contrast, has proven especially attractive to those who, despite having specialized knowledge about a subject, have little access to the nation’s Op-Ed pages. The model here is Juan Cole, a Mideast scholar at the University of Michigan whose blog, Informed Comment, has over the years offered a more acute analysis of developments inside Iraq—and now Iran—than most of the reporters stationed in those countries. Today, one can find similar commentators on almost any subject. For a physician’s personal take on America’s health care problems, one can turn to KevinMD, written by Kevin Pho, a primary care doctor in Nashua, New Hampshire. For a fresh perspective on education, there’s joannejacobs .com, by a former Knight-Ridder columnist; and on drug policy, there’s The Reality-Based Community, by UCLA professor Mark Kleiman.

Beyond such individual sites, the Web has helped open up entire subjects that were once off-limits to the press. The domestic politics of US policy toward Israel is a good example. Until recently, the activities of pro-Israel lobbying groups like AIPAC were all but ignored by reporters fearful of being branded anti-Semitic or anti- Israel. Today, the Web teems with news, analysis, opinion, and polemic about US–Israel relations. Rob Browne, a Long Island dentist, keeps track of Israel-related legislation in Congress on the left-liberal blog Daily Kos. M.J. Rosenberg, a former AIPAC staffer-turned-dove, dissects the Israel lobby’s activities on Talking Points Memo. Fiercely opposing them is a battalion of Israel defenders, including Ron Kampeas, (Capital J at the JTA wire service), Michael Goldfarb (the online editor of The Weekly Standard), and—the most influential journalist/blogger on matters related to Israel—Jeffrey Goldberg (at The Atlantic).

Both sides feed off the vast amount of data available on the Web. “In the past, I wouldn’t have been able to get Haaretz except by going to Hotaling’s,” observes Philip Weiss, author of the blog Mondoweiss, referring to the long-since-shuttered foreign newspaper shop in New York. “Now I can get it, and the entire Israeli and Arab press, online.” Weiss is one of several friends I’ve seen flourish online after enduring years of frustration writing for magazines. With its unrelenting criticism of Israel, his site has angered even some of his fellow doves, but it has given voice to a strain of opinion that in the past had few chances of being heard. In June, Weiss, with $8,000 in reader donations, traveled to Gaza with an antiwar group, and for several days he filed reports on his encounters with students, aid workers, and Hamas officials.

2.

Even on subjects that are in the headlines, like the financial crisis, the Web offers insight and revelation. When the subprime mortgage bubble burst in mid-2007, for instance, journalists, scrambling to explain the mess, rushed to sites like Calculated Risk, where Tanta, a pseudonymous mortgage banker with twenty years experience in the field, dissected the follies of lenders and the fecklessness of regulators. On Naked Capitalism, Yves Smith, a (pseudonymous) veteran of the financial services industry, demystified the credit markets, while on Grasping Reality with Both Hands, Brad DeLong, a professor of economics at the University of California at Berkeley, provided close critical analysis of the views of economic policymakers.

While researching this article, I stumbled on a lode of fresh material about the relations between Wall Street and Washington. At Ezra Klein’s suggestion, I looked up the work of Ryan Grim at The Huffington Post, the Web site known widely for its entertaining jumble of tangy stories, eye-grabbing headlines, and celebrity blogs. But it also has a Washington bureau with seven editors and reporters (including Dan Froomkin, added in July after The Washington Post terminated his contract). As one of the reporters, Grim covers Congress, and during the spring he closely covered the battle to rein in the banking, credit card, and mortgage industries. Able to post several times a day, Grim can track the proceedings with a thoroughness most newspaper reporters would envy. In an article about the banking lobby’s efforts to derail a bill designed to help prevent foreclosures, Grim recorded Senator Dick Durbin’s anguished observation that “the banks—hard to believe in a time when we’re facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created—are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place.”

Coming from the majority whip of the Senate, Durbin’s outburst seemed a striking acknowledgement of the banking industry’s continued grip on Congress, yet no major paper picked it up. (Six weeks later, Frank Rich mentioned it in his column in the Times.) Immediately sensing the remark’s importance, Arianna Huffington folded it into one of the sharp-edged columns she regularly posts on her site. “Why Are Bankers Still Being Treated as Beltway Royalty?” the headline asked, and Huffington responded with a series of sobering examples of how “the entrenched special interests” continue “to call so many shots on Capitol Hill.”

Glimmers of these realities occasionally surface in printed newspapers and weeklies, whether, for example, in The Wall Street Journal ‘s “USA Inc.” series or the reports of Gretchen Morgenson and Stephen Labaton in the Times. For the most part, though, the coverage of the financial crisis in the daily press has been episodic, diluted, cloaked in qualifiers, and neutered by comments and disclaimers from businessmen and their paid spokesmen, to whom mainstream journalists feel obligated to give equal time.

The bloggers I have been reading reject such reflexive attempts at “balance,” and it’s their willingness to dispense with such conventions that makes the blogosphere a lively and bracing place. This is nowhere more apparent than in the work of Glenn Greenwald. A lawyer and former litigator, Greenwald is a relative newcomer to blogging, having begun only in December 2005, but as Eric Boehlert notes in his well-researched but somewhat breathless Bloggers on the Bus, within six months of his debut he “had ascended to an unofficial leadership position within the blogosphere.” In contrast to the short, punchy posts favored by most bloggers, Greenwald offers a single daily essay of two thousand to three thousand words. In each, he draws on extensive research, amasses a daunting array of facts, and, as Boehlert puts it, builds his case “much like an attorney does.”

Greenwald initially made his mark with fierce attacks on the Bush administration’s policy of warrantless surveillance, and he continues to comment on the subject with great fury. Other recent targets have included Goldman Sachs (for its influence in the Obama administration), Jeffrey Rosen (for his dismissive New Republic piece on Sonia Sotomayor), Jeffrey Goldberg (for his attacks on the Times ‘s Roger Cohen), the Washington Post Op-Ed page (for the many neoconservatives in residence), and the national press in general (for its insistence on using euphemisms for the word “torture”). In June he wrote:

The steadfast, ongoing refusal of our leading media institutions to refer to what the Bush administration did as “torture”—even in the face of more than 100 detainee deaths; the use of that term by a leading Bush official to describe what was done at Guantánamo; and the fact that media outlets frequently use the word “torture” to describe the exact same methods when used by other countries—reveals much about how the modern journalist thinks.

For the press, Greenwald added, “there are two sides and only two sides to every ‘debate’—the Beltway Democratic establishment and the Beltway Republican establishment.”

In so vigilantly watching over the press, Greenwald has performed an invaluable service. But his posts have a downside. Absorbing the full force of his arguments and dutifully following his corroborating links, I felt myself drawn into an ideological wind tunnel, with the relentless gusts of opinion and analysis gradually wearing me down. After reading his harsh denunciations of Obama’s decision not to release the latest batch of torture photos, I began to lose sight of the persuasive arguments that other commentators have made in support of the President’s position. As well-argued and provocative as I found many of Greenwald’s postings, they often seem oblivious to the practical considerations policymakers must contend with.

This points to some of the more troubling features of the journalism taking shape on the Web. The polemical excesses for which the blogosphere is known remain real. In And Then There’s This, an impressionistic account of the viral culture on the Internet, Bill Wasik describes how “the network of political blogs, through a feedback loop among bloggers and readers,” has produced a machine that supplies the reader with “prefiltered information” supporting his or her own views. According to one study cited by Wasik, 85 percent of blog links were to other blogs of the same political inclination, “with almost no blog showing any particular respect for any blog on the other side.”

With so many voices clamoring for attention, moreover, a premium is put on the sexy and sensational. Headlines are exaggerated so as to secure clicks and boost traffic—the all-important measure of Web success. At any moment, site managers can see which pieces are faring well and which poorly and can promote or bury them accordingly. The reports by Ryan Grim on Wall Street’s influence in Washington that I found so illuminating were hard to find on The Huffington Post, while you couldn’t miss tabloidy posts like “Lindsay Lohan TOPLESS on Twitter.”

Writers on the Internet are under constant pressure to post so as to keep the traffic flowing. Many who write full-time for Web sites complain of the Taylorite work pace and the lack of time it leaves to think or to work on longer pieces. Readers themselves seem allergic to reading extended pieces on computer screens. “The one nut we’ve never fully cracked is how to do long-form journalism online,” says Jacob Weisberg, the former editor of Slate. “Doing New Yorker -type pieces on-line doesn’t work.” In an effort to fix that, Weisberg’s successor, David Plotz, is requiring each Slate writer to take off six weeks to work on longer projects.

Finally, the Internet remains a hothouse for rumors, distortions, and fabrications. The last presidential campaign exemplified this, with bloggers on the left (including Andrew Sullivan) insisting that Sarah Palin had faked being pregnant in order to protect her daughter Bristol, and bloggers on the right declaring that Barack Obama had falsified his birth certificate and was not a US citizen. The recent cascade of material out of Iran, with its surge of uncorroborated e-mails, videos, and Tweets, suggests the urgent need for skilled aggregators who can sift the factual from the flimsy and help guide readers through the tumult of cyberspace.

For all these problems, the Web is currently home to all kinds of intriguing experiments. YouTube recently introduced a Reporters’ Center offering tips from established reporters on how to cover international news. The Huffington Post has set up an investigative fund to support journalistic research. The Boston-based GlobalPost has arranged with dozens of independent reporters around the world to find outlets for their work. Sites like Minn Post in Minneapolis and Voice of San Diego are testing whether metro reporting can be done on the Internet. Among the more notable recent developments are the sharply edited book section at The Daily Beast; the brisk video-debate unit Bloggingheads.tv; and the conservative blogging collective NewMajority.com, set up by David Frum after he broke with National Review.

Taken together, such initiatives suggest a fundamental change taking place in the world of news. As the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism put it in its 2009 “State of the News Media” report:

Power is shifting to the individual journalist and away, by degrees, from journalistic institutions…. Through search, e-mail, blogs, social media and more, consumers are gravitating to the work of individual writers and voices, and away somewhat from institutional brand. Journalists who have left legacy news organizations are attracting funding to create their own websites…. Experiments like GlobalPost are testing whether individual journalists can become independent contractors offering reporting to various sites, in much the way photographers have operated for years at magazines.

In a much-circulated essay, Clay Shirky, an Internet consultant and professor at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, compares the current turbulence in the news business to the disorder brought about by the invention of the printing press, when old forms of transmitting information were breaking down and new ones had yet to cohere—a transition accompanied by much confusion and uncertainty. The historical analogy can be taken a step further: just as the advent of printing helped break the medieval Church’s hold on the flow of information, so is the rise of the Internet loosening the grip of the corporate-owned mass media. A profound if unsettling process of decentralization and democratization is taking place.

Needless to say, traditional news organizations continue to play a critical part in keeping the public informed. But can they adapt to the rapidly changing news environment? And who is going to pay for quality news and information in the future? I hope to address both subjects in a subsequent piece.

Letters

The Times & the Internet September 24, 2009

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