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July 19, 2004

For Connoisseurs of High Church Condescension, Alex Jones on Bloggers at the Convention

Let's Be Clear, say Alex Jones and the Los Angeles Times, "Bloggers Are the Sizzle, Not the Steak..." My response: do your homework. Don't recycle.

Alex S. Jones, of Harvard’s Kennedy School, a former reporter for the New York Times, and a biographer of newspaper families, writes in the LA Times (July 18, 2004) on what distinguishes blogs at the upcoming convention in Boston:

Political conventions have become festivals of faux harmony and candidate image-building, which makes them marvelous targets for blogging’s candor, intelligence and righteous wrath.

However, bloggers, with few exceptions, don’t add reporting to the personal views they post online, and they see journalism as bound by norms and standards that they reject. That encourages these common attributes of the blogosphere: vulgarity, scorching insults, bitter denunciations, one-sided arguments, erroneous assertions and the array of qualities that might be expected from a blustering know-it-all in a bar.

Now here’s Jones on the bloggers “air of conviction” and how this makes them targets of manipulators, and potential dupes:

In these early days, blogging still has the charm of guileless transparency, which in the blogosphere means that everyone — no matter how cranky or hysterical — is presumed to be speaking his or her mind with sincerity. It is this air of conviction that makes bloggers such potent advocates.

However, if history is any indicator, such earnestness will attract those who would exploit it, and they include some canny, inventive people.

It’s all there in the LA Times: Bloggers Are the Sizzle, Not the Steak: Convention seats do not turn Internet gossips into journalists. I would love to know what others think, so hit the comment button and speak.

Alex Jones is someone I know from professional conferences and other discussion settings. I have also been interviewed by him. He’s a fine person, a serious man, with deep knowledge of his craft, willing to stand up and be counted when it comes to protecting professional values. I respect his opinion, and his experience. But that analysis Sunday is beneath his standards and the standards he saw himself as protecting in the Los Angeles Times. I say so for many reasons; I will list three.

The weblogs invited to Boston aren’t about to displace or ruin journalism and they are not the triumph of Matt Drudge. Plus, I doubt most of the authors care who’s considered a “real” journalist by the High Church. They’ll do their thing, and it will probably complement what the press corps is doing, not as sizzle is to steak, or gossip is to hard information, but as F Sharp is to C Major. Some will tune in to that, most will not. If it were possible, if it were legal, and if it were cheap, I would attach an audio link at this point: Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man.” Seems to capture the mood here.

UPDATE, July 20: Rebecca Blood in comments here, and Markos Moulitsas Zúniga of the Daily Kos in comments here, both ask: why bother criticizing Jones? (Blood: “This is just a fluff piece, jay, I’m surprised you even bothered to comment on it.” Kos: “Who cares what some joker journalism professor wrote?”)

It’s a fair question. I guess it depends on whether you begin from a position of respect for Alex Jones, for the Los Angeles Times, for the editor of its opinion pages, Michael Kinsley, for Harvard’s Kennedy School where Jones is installed, and for the journalism establishment, in which Jones is a go-to guy for comment on press issues. Institutions matter. Rebellions against the authority, timidity, blindness and arrogance of institutions, or the individuals who head them— those matter too. And when those two things talk to one another, or at least about one another, that also matters.

I’m not a “typical” blogger in the sense of being an outsider or amateur who gained voice for the first time after starting a weblog. I already had a platform of sorts as a J-school professor (and current head of the NYU program.) I had a track record as a press critic and published author before I started PressThink. You might say I am part of the establishment myself; after all, I have a job within it. And my Department at NYU certainly participates in the credentialing and professionalizing of journalism.

Because I participate in both worlds—the press establishment and the self-publishing revolution represented by blogging—I feel I should interpret one to the other. I pay attention to all the points where these worlds connect. And it bothers me when a representative figure like Alex Jones is permitted such a low standard of argument. It bothers me when he plays to the ignorance and prejudice some journalists show toward the upstart bloggers.

The world works through institutions, and institutions are embodied by the individuals who speak for them. If you feel it’s important to argue with the establishment (and some may not), the way that is done is by engaging speakers from it. But there’s a simpler way of putting it. On this subject, I am part of the loyal opposition to Jones and those who think as he does. I am also loyal to the webloggers and what they are trying to do, which is to invigorate the press.

“The people who will invent the next press in America—and who are doing it now online—continue an experiment at least 250 years old,” I wrote in the introduction to PressThink. I want Alex Jones to understand that, and the next time I see him, I will try again.

After Matter: Notes, reactions & links….

Earlier at PressThink: Convention Coverage is a Failed Regime and Bloggers Have Their Credentials (July 7) and If Religion Writers Rode the Campaign Bus…(July 16)


Jessie Taylor at has some thoughts on Mister Jones: “I was under the impression that being a journalist turned you into a journalist, not an invite to somewhere to get “behind the scenes”. It sounds tautological, but the point is remarkably true - the person who presents the fact check on an erroneous editorial or article is, honestly, as much a journalist as the person who wrote it.”

Dave Pell also has a reply at Electablog:

Jones assumes that the giving out of media credentials marks a moment of blogging legitimization. While I’ll admit that my mom is pretty impressed by the fact that I got a media pass, I personally think the millions and millions of readers, including many of those in the mainstream press, legitimized blogging more than the Democratic Party’s very smart marketing decision. And second, who says bloggers want to be journalists (assuming we can all even agree on what a journalist is) or that the issuing of credentials turns them into anything other than bloggers who have a ticket to the Fleet Center?

Glenn Reynolds has a tart response (and lots of links): “ALEX JONES writes that press credentials don’t turn bloggers into journalists. True enough. Of course, neither does a paycheck from the New York Times or NPR.

Joe Gandelman, an experienced journalist-turned-blogger, puts it down to resentment over the dues-paying weblog authors have not done. He also has a good round up of reactions.

Matt Welch: But Bloggers Aren’t Journalists!!, Take 94:

It takes the issuance of credentials by a friggin’ political party to confer status on people who have built huge audiences from scratch and invigorated the mediasphere by writing for free? What a warped view of journalism.
But should blogging displace traditional reporting and journalism, as some in the blogosphere predict it will, then the steak will have been swapped for the sizzle.

Who in “the blogosphere” has predicted this. Who? No really, who? Has anyone predicted this, let alone “some”?

Jeff Jarvis, The byline makes the man? On “it’s better to have both.”

Well, precisely. And the way to have both is not to dismiss and dis these newfangled weblog thingies, to act self-superior to them, to annoint yourself the priesthood and keep the rabble out of the catherdral. The way to have both is to listen. Join in the conversation, Alex. Read what bloggers are saying about what you said about them.

Take a stance against interested writing… Zephyr Teachout, former director of Internet organizing for Howard Dean, in comments at BOP News:

I would like to see all credentialed bloggers will agree not to write about anyone who is paying them, at least for the duration of the convention.

At a minimum, a credentialed blogger, it seems, should not write about someone who is paying them as a consultant.

Caveats are not sufficient, at least for me, to build trust.

I would offer up to debate whether bloggers should not write about people who are paying them in blogads.

Inasmuch as part of the blogging culture is a response to interested journalism (writing that is either edited or influenced by investment in the subject matter), it seems critical that bloggers take a stance against interested writing.

JD Lasica speaks directly to Jones:

Jones also props up the myth that legions of bloggers want to replace mainstream journalists, when what they really want is to be brought into the conversation.

Mr. Jones, perhaps it’s time to step outside your big media hub and see what’s really happening in the blogosphere, where the democratic ideals this country was founded on—robust debate, dissent, and a refreshing, free-flowing exchange of ideas—are on display every day, if you only knew where to look.

Jeff Goldstein @ protein wisdom: *Alex S. Jones is director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Not that that makes him better than you, just that—well, okay. So maybe it does make him better than you… “

Dave Winer bought a new domain name and created ConventionBloggers.Com: A community site for bloggers participating in the DNC, July 26-29. One potential use of this site is that delegates blogging and bloggers who are credentialed could find out about each other there.

Practical philosopher and blogger Peter Levine has two posts I commend to convention bloggers and watchers: Does anything happen at a convention? (July 19)

Once you think about it, a modern convention is fascinating, and something does happen there. But its interest isn’t accessible if you look at politics in conventional terms, as a contest between two teams with contrasting personalities and proposals. From that point of view, it’s unclear why reporters should cover the conventions at all…. But what if we see politics as ritual, spectacle, tradition, or even “convention” (in the broader sense)? Then we can ask: What do these ceremonies mean? Why do they linger past their original purpose?

Peter Levine, what’s interesting about conventions (July 20)

Political scientists and reporters typically try to explain politicians’ behavior by assuming that they want to get elected and re-elected, or that they want to enact particular policies. But this analysis begs the question of why anyone would want to hold public office in the first place…. to a large extent, I believe they want to participate in our public rituals. They want to hear someone announce them: “LAY-dies and gentlemen, the next great mayor of our magnificent city … ” They want to watch balloons rise up in a great hall when they take the podium. They want to cut ribbons and kiss babies and get interviewed on Nightline. All this means that different people would enter politics if we had different rituals.

Posted by Jay Rosen at July 19, 2004 3:46 PM