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October 4, 2004

Political Jihad and the American Blog: Chris Satullo Raises the Stakes

On September 26, in 668 precision words, Chris Satullo, editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, significantly advanced a debate that Nick Coleman, Dan Rather, Alex Jones and others have trivialized by dumping on the bloggers from a "higher" position. Satullo abandons that, in favor of widening the circle. He says journalists should pay serious attention to bloggers. And he has a warning: Orwellians in the mist.

A pizza-stained paper plate sat between Moulitsas and Atrios. Together, they have more readers than The Philadelphia Inquirer. Matthew Klam, New York Times Magazine, Sep. 26.

When journalists go after bloggers, op-ed style, they typically have one thing to say: these bloggers, they’re not real journalists. And they don’t have to meet our standards, so don’t trust them.

Two days ago I wrote about an exceptionally pure case in point: Nick Coleman’s Sep. 29 column in the Star-Tribune. (See PressThink, Nick Coleman’s Classic Hit.) It’s too bad he veered from it to “bloggers are scum,” for he was on to something serious that morning.

Coleman—a metro columnist in the Twin Cities who has worked for both local dailies: the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and the Star-Tribune—saw a “war against the media” being fought out today. “A lot of it, we deserve,” he added. “The traditional media have faltered badly, from the run-up to Iraq to the Rather-CBS fiasco over forged memos.” He said he was worried about what was going to happen now.

“We are rattled, and in danger of losing our way.”

Nick Coleman had this sense that the bloggers were involved in the rattling, and the danger. But it was confusing to him. How had professional journalists allowed themselves to be attacked by these information vermin, the bloggers? It was unbelievable that such lowlifes could be credited with a story that was dragging the mighty CBS down.

And if CBS goes down who is going to scrutinize power? Coleman wanted to know. (It’s a good question, too.) A banker, a lawyer, writing a blog in his spare time? “That’s the job of journalism,” he wrote. “To scrutinize the actions of those in power. If you think bankers will do it, your brain is blog mush.”

But Coleman let his hostility—“most bloggers are not fit to carry a reporter’s notebook”—get in the way of his analysis, and so his point about the war and being rattled was never carried through. Perhaps feeling spat upon by particular bloggers, he decided to spit on the bloggers as a group.

But this won’t help anyone understand the “war against the media.” In more vivid language, Tom Brokaw talked about the war at a New Yorker event this weekend. (All three anchormen spoke there, making it newsworthy.) “What I think is highly inappropriate is what’s going on across the Internet, a kind of political jihad against Dan Rather and CBS News that is quite outrageous,” Brokaw said. (See this and this.)

If the worries of Tom Brokaw won’t, the writings of Hugh Hewitt will help you understand this war. Read him consistently, you begin to get it. He gave a public warning to Jim Lehrer before last week’s presidential debate: You saw what happened to CBS, Mr. Lehrer. Be smart, and don’t tilt the debate for Kerry, as we know you want to… (Hugh Hewitt, On Notice: “Jim Lehrer and the rest of the old media should know that they have to play it straight tonight.” Weekly Standard, Sep. 30).

Jim Lehrer takes his seat as debate moderator with the PBS brand as firmly affixed to his back as CBS is to Dan Rather’s. Moderating a presidential debate never carried much of a risk for the mother ship in the past, but in this era of new media, any detectable bias on Lehrer’s part will result in a cyber-tsunami headed towards PBS affiliates across the country.

Hewitt (who said he was only arguing for balance, as in “play it straight, PBS”) made a prediction:

If Lehrer goes in the tank for Kerry, expect an enormous blowback—as predictable as the one which followed CBS’s foisting of forgeries on the public. Only PBS is much more vulnerable to viewer dismay than the Boss Tweeds at Black Rock.

“Vulnerable” is the key word to Hewitt and company on the cultural and Internet right. They believe they have the mainstream news media on the run, in a weakened state, and “on notice” about liberal bias.

Andrew Sullivan’s Sep. 12 column in the Times of London is the best synopsis of the war that Coleman and Brokaw talked about, and that Hewitt also sees happening. (Media Wars: “The Election’s Other Battle.”) There’s also this backgrounder about the “tension between bloggers and news media” from Staci Kramer in OJR. Both are valuable.

But the best column yet written about that tension came and went recently with almost no notice from bloggers or media critics, though it made Romenesko five days late. In fact, Technorati showed zero references at the time this was posted. For me it is the most consequential piece of its kind, and the ideas in it are too important to let pass without comment. (So when you’re done, hit the button and comment.)

On September 26, in 668 words, Chris Satullo, editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, significantly advanced a debate that Alex Jones, and Nick Coleman, and Dan Rather, and many others have trivialized by dumping on the bloggers from a “higher” position. Satullo abandons this position, in favor of widening the circle. He gives the best argument yet for why journalists should pay serious attention to bloggers and what they have to offer. Then he lets the newcomers, the bloggers, have a hit of realism.

His case begins where I would begin. Before you criticize journalists, you should think about your answer to a thousand dollar question: what are journalists for? (In your mind.) I wrote a book about it. Satullo has thought about it. Roll tape:

For any journalist who understands his real job— helping the public life of this nation work well…

Stop right there. The ultimate job of the press, in Satullo’s world (and in mine), is a pragmatic one: “helping the public life of this nation work well.” This view, we should tell you, has rivals. One of them says the ultimate job of the press is to help no one, advance no agenda. “We’re the watchdogs and the truthtellers and we advocate nothing. End of story.” I call it the View from Nowhere. Satullo isn’t on that side. And this affects what he thinks about the bloggers. Roll tape:

For any journalist who understands his real job - helping the public life of this nation work well - the rise of citizen comment on the Internet should be something to celebrate.

Stop. Check it out, Newsroom Joe. Journalists should be cheering the arrival of the bloggers during this campaign cycle. Why? Because journalism is about the enlargement of public life, and that’s what the bloggers are doing. Enlarging the circle.

The blogosphere is a dynamic expansion of things newspapers have long done to aid democratic dialogue, from letters to the editor to experiments in civic journalism.

Blogging is a new way to engage people in discussion of the news, the very thing you care about and do, Nick Coleman.

Many bloggers are citizens who care about facts and ideas. (Some are narcissistic boors, but let’s ignore them.) Good bloggers devour information, making then a smart, skeptical audience.

Journalists, you can stop worrying about bloggers “replacing” the traditional news media. We’re grist for their mill, says Satullo, a mill that doesn’t run without us. Bloggers consume and extend the shelf life of our reporting, and they scrutinize it at a new level of intensity.

Any journalist who would not welcome that is a fool. Given a choice between a world of nonreaders zoning out with MTV or a posse of tart-tongued digital watchdogs, I say: Up with blogs!

Of course, there are others saying the same thing, but I find “up with blogs!” refreshing in a newspaper editor.

Blogs may display the flaws of youth (naivete, hyperbole, self-indulgence), but I find them refreshing.

Good deal. However, there is a problem. It’s this media war. Satullo starts off in a light hearted way:

… many bloggers disdain my type [newspaper editors and columnists] as clueless dinosaurs. The blogosphere is declaring its independence, even as it relies on us fogeys for its daily grist. The sensation is vaguely familiar. I am, after all, the father of two teenagers.

And “blog triumphalism,” as we know, has a very adolescent view of life:

The ruling spin on Dan’s Big Blunder seems to be: Rather exposed as a biased hack; mainstream media exposed as arrogant, obsolete gatekeepers; the blogosphere rules!

Not so fast, interpreters…

Rather’s meltdown could be a clarifying moment for journalism.

Which is a story line no main line reporter has pursued since the Rather matter blew up Sep. 20: the blown opportunity story. CBS could have seized the initiative during the crisis and transformed itself, right there in the eye of the storm, into an Internet-era news division, pro-active in building credibility, willing to be more open, accountable and interactive. By taking advantage of the crisis, treating it as a moment to break with orthodoxy and become more transparent, CBS leadership might have rescued a very bad situaton, and made of it a “clarifying moment.” (Jeff Jarvis made this point on Sep. 19th.) It didn’t happen. Now Satullo:

But the event is being hijacked by propagandists of Orwellian agenda. Their cover story: We’re challenging the bloated corporations that own the biased mainstream media. This strikes a chord with the hype-weary youth who’ve made the Internet their own.

This brings him to the war, and the war cry of bias:

But the real goal of the propagandists - with their shouts of Bias! Arrogance! Monopoly! - is to destroy journalism. Why? Because journalism is the sworn enemy of propaganda.

I believe Satullo is drawing a distinction between those who are frustrated and angry with the traditional news media, and want answers, as well as changes, which is one group of critics—many of them pro-Bush or red staters, some of whom blog—and another group, posing as critics of bias, who see an oppportunity to discredit CBS News in the wider public sphere.

They want to achieve an historic victory in a very long war between conservatives and the likes of CBS, going back to 1969 and Spiro Agnew, or even further to 1964, when Barry Goldwater met the hostility of Northeastern journalists. (For this background go here.) They want to inflict as much damage as possible on an institution they treat as hostile to Republican Truth, and to the message of the cultural right.

Bias is their lever only because CBS and other mainstream news organizations claim to be un-biased. (And Newsday’s Marvin Kitman said Sunday that’s a fantasy in TV news.) If CBS identified itself as liberal news, made by progressives for all Americans, the war against Rather and crew would go on, but not on the grounds of bias. It would switch to the defeat of “CBS liberalism” itself. Bloggers, says Satullo, be wary of the Orwellians.

They’ve pressed their attack against journalism for 30 years now, frothing about Bias.

But this does not mean the press is innocent of bias, error, laziness and poor quality control.

And shame on journalists for having given them so much ammunition. We screw up too often. We take too many shortcuts. We lapse in vigilance against our own preconceptions.

To lapse in vigilance against your own preconceptions is to take up residence in built deceptions— as with spin alley. This happens way too often, Satullo says. The press should value bloggers who can point it out.

But, in the public forum, overuse has drained meaning from the cry of “Bias!” Often, all it denotes is: “What you reported does not conform to my assumptions.” Or worse: “What you reported, while true, does not advance my agenda.”

It’s the “or worse” case that made Tom Brokaw speak of a “political jihad” against Rather and CBS. But Brokaw, like Rather, is still lumping Internet, blogger, and jihad together and reacting with outrage at the enemy’s tactics. Satullo makes distinctions, so he can warn the citizen bloggers against the jihadis. Howard Kurtz picks up the action:

Although he called Rather’s “60 Minutes” story “a big mistake,” Brokaw said it had led to an attempt to “demonize” Rather and CBS through “demagoguery.”

ABC’s Peter Jennings disagreed, crediting bloggers for first questioning whether the Guard documents were fake and adding: “I don’t think you can just say this is a universal ‘let’s get CBS.

Their disagreement matters, and this shows why Kurtz is a good reporter. Most amazing of all are the distinctions Satullo drew between “journalism” and Big Media. How often do you hear sentiments like this?

Don’t tell my bosses I said this, but it really doesn’t matter a whit to the republic whether Knight Ridder, the corporation that owns this newspaper, thrives or dies. As loyal as I am to newspapers, I confess it’s not even essential that the ink-on-paper medium survives.

The only thing that matters is for journalism—the practice—to go on, to survive. What is journalism? Satullo does not shy away. He has a definition ready for you.

By journalism, I don’t mean getting paid $4 million a year to have nice hair and interview Kelsey Grammer. I mean the principled, difficult search for the most thorough, accurate, fair-minded account of current matters that flawed human beings can attain.

The media firms that employ journalists have no great commitment to that search. (In this a lot of media critics are right.) But then…

Media conglomerates are not a synonym for journalism. They employ some journalists, and many who only pretend to be. They enable the craft, but also inhibit and cheapen it.

This is one reason why journalists should take an interest in blogging. Independent journalism may have to learn how to live outside Big Media, which is not exactly journalism-friendly, as Satullo says. Bloggers are doing that now. Maybe we can learn from them. But bloggers can learn from us old media types too. It doesn’t matter where it comes from, CBS, or or the Command Post.

What matters is that journalism survive, that the craft of speaking truth to power with factual care not be snuffed out.

Which puts it beautifully.

Because power prefers lies. Without journalism, lies flourish and liars rule.

Satullo is smart enough to know that those words do not have credibility for all. I found this part poignant.

I know, I know: What an old-media blowhard! But young bloggers, as you shove my type aside and stride to the glorious future, take care that the calendar doesn’t one day turn to 1984. Be wary of the Orwellians.

My one complaint about Chris Satullo’s column is that he didn’t name any “Orwellians.” (I criticized Coleman for that too.) Brokaw did name one participant in the jihad, as Kurtz reported:

He said that Brent Bozell, who runs the conservative Media Research Center in Alexandria, has been “doing as much damage as he can, and I choose that word carefully, to the credibility of the news divisions.” Brokaw noted the growing criticism from left-wing bloggers and expressed skepticism toward Internet detractors: “When it comes to fraudulence, forgeries and claims that cannot be supported, that’s where you see an enormous harm being done to the country.” (My links.)

Satullo’s column is challenging to bloggers but open to their contributions. It’s neither condescending nor sentimental about the blogging trend. In my view his Sep. 26th piece ought to be linked to and read. It ought to be argued about. We ought to know who agrees and who doesn’t with:

Satullo’s final point is that journalism isn’t summed up in Dan Rather, and “MSM on the run” is a sloppy analysis:

Rather’s mistake was sad, but no watershed. This aging anchor is no more the embodiment of journalism than Paris Hilton is a typical farm girl. Mainstream media is a term so loose as to disqualify any assertions that follow it.

He ends by keeping the lines of communication open:

Let’s, by all means, discuss how journalism falls short. Let’s explore how it can flourish in media new and old. But let’s see the screaming about media bias for what it is: at best sloppy thinking, at worst Orwellian poison.

I will be interested to hear what others think. I think Satullo just raised the bar, and hiked the stakes, but almost no one noticed. Roll tape…

After Matter: Notes, reactions and links…

UPDATE: See PressThink (Oct. 8) Satullo Responds: “Bloggers, Journalists, Can’t We All Just Get Along?” (I find so much of the talking about “bias” and “journalism” ignores what writers for newspapers actually do: the best they can to think straight and write straight in too little time with facts that are too sketchy for any sane person to think they constitute “truth.”)

Chris Satullo, Cries of ‘media bias’ hide sloppy thinking (Philadelphia Inquirer, Sep. 26, 2004)

Andrew Sullivan, Media Wars: “There are, I think, three genuinely new power-brokers in American politics and culture in this election season. They are cable news, the blogosphere, and new advertizing/political groups called - after the legislative subsection that helped create them - ‘527s’. Between them, these new forces have helped dilute and even, in a few cases, supplant the network news, the mainstream newspapers and even the political parties as the critical arbiters of the course of an election.”

Tim Porter, responding to this post at First Draft:

What I’ve said before in similar vein is this: “The real lesson both the newsroom and the boardroom need to learn is that, in the age of the 24-hour scroll, the micro-fragmentation of electronic media, and the constant clamor for a news consumer’s attention by everyone from the New York Times to yours truly, all that’s left is the journalism.”

Ernest Miller at Corante comments:

Satullo says that the battle cries of the Orwellians are “Bias! Arrogance! Monopoly!” Why do the Orwellians use these cries? Why do they resonate with the public? Is it perhaps because there is truth in them? A truth that should be spoken to power?

If journalists weren’t so busy claiming that they were objective and, instead, insisted on transparency and accountability, there would be little to be feared from cries of “bias.”

Chris Satullo responds to a critical blog post by La Shawn Barber.

John Fund at Opinion Journal (Oct. 4)

As one prominent journalist recently put it: “In the end, what difference does it make what one candidate or the other did or didn’t do during the Vietnam War? In some ways, that war is as distant as the Napoleonic campaigns.” The man who spoke those words—at a time when John Kerry was under attack by the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth—was Dan Rather.

To question CBS over how it rushed its story on air is not to engage in a “political jihad,” as Mr. Brokaw claims. It’s to ask legitimate questions about why Mr. Rather and his CBS colleagues felt differently when it came to the National Guard memos.

“We really want a vengeful assault.” John Leo in his US News column: “The e-mail on last week’s Rather-gate column was almost entirely furious with CBS. About 95 percent of some 300 letters and E-mails attacked the network, and all but four or five of those messages denounced my oh-so-moderate suggestion that the goal is not a vengeful assault on CBS but safeguards for fairer reporting. ‘No,’ wrote one reader, ‘we really want a vengeful assault.’”

Cavalier’s Guardian Watchblog: The Fall of the Media Empire (Sep. 16)

Why the revolution won’t be blogged: “Bloggers talk about their importance, but it’s just talk.” J. Kelly Nestruck in Canada’s National Post (Oct. 5, 2004).

Here I Blog, I Can Do No Other, Doug Kern column (TCS, Oct. 5)

Five hundred years ago, the Catholic Church was the big four networks, CNN, the New York Times, and NPR all rolled into one. To its adherents, the Roman Catholic Church was the only authoritative source of truth about the world. In a Europe populated largely by illiterate, ill-traveled peasants, who could contest the Church’s interpretation of anything?

Then as now, a monopoly on information and public narratives leads to abuses. Reporters distort truth for partisan gain, just as clerics distorted theology for personal profit. The lust for big ratings (and the ensuing lucrative commercial deals) leads to sensationalized stories; the lust for big donations led to sensationalized claims for plenary indulgences. Greed and arrogance are the eternal opponents of truth.

Earlier PressThink on Dan Rather, CBS, and the Texas Air National Guard:

Weekend Notes with Forgery Swirling in the Air. (Sep. 11)

Stark Message for the Legacy Media. (Sep. 14)

Rather’s Satisfaction: Mystifying Troubles at CBS. (Sep. 18)

Did the President of CBS News Have Anyone in Charge of Reading the Internet and Sending Alerts? (Sep. 20)

Does CBS News Have a Political Future in This State? (Sep. 24)

Posted by Jay Rosen at October 4, 2004 7:28 PM