The “silly season” of journalism is a well-known phenomenon occurring in summer, when days are long, the news is short, and not enough lawmakers are getting caught with their pants down in toilets, or otherwise.
This year it is being amplified with stinging meanness against blog journalism, the new kid on the block that contests primacy in advertising and news coverage with the establishment media.
Mayhill Fowler, a blogger, dismissively described as a short, 61-year-old amateur, elbowed her way to the front of the crowd mobbing Bill Clinton in South Dakota in the Democratic Party primaries, deftly asking about a scathing article in Vanity Fair over his persona.
She scored big time, eliciting vile accusations against the article’s author by our former president as “sleazy,” “slimy,” and a “scumbag.” She reported it on a well-visited blog, making big news. That earned her widespread scorn from the mainstream media, which dubbed her “illegitimate” and “dishonest,” and accused her of restricting future access by real journalists.
“This makes it very difficult for the rest of us to do our jobs,” protested Jonathan Alter, a columnist for Newsweek. “If you don’t have trust, you don’t get good stories. If someone comes along and uses deception to shatter that trust, she has hurt the very cause of a free flow of public information.”
Whoa there. While you were busy having “trust” she went unhindered. This is the original definition of reporting and writing at J-school.
Elsewhere in the silly season, the New Yorker, the New Republic, and other weighty publications labored over hundreds of pages about harebrained descriptions of some theological split among jihadists over which infidel — indeed which Muslim — to kill. This Sunday, the New York Times lavished space on a catfight among self-promoting academics arguing whether local chapters at London’s mosques have replaced al-Qaeda central command in caves.
Was any of it relevant? Not so for upcoming victims or the overall reality of Islamofascism. Was it true? No one asked an original source. Was it reliably reported? Sure, from the comfort of desk phones in Paris and New York. Again this does not meet the where, when, how, who, and why of basic journalism.
Let’s take a closer look because herein lies the core reasons that mainstream journalism is ceding ground to blogging as the new genie in the world of information.
The three-minute exchange between President Clinton and enterprising blogger Ms. Fowler was described as a “hatchet job,” because Ms. Fowler did not identify herself as a journalist. Namely, if she does not work for mainstream print, radio, or TV, she is “illegitimate.” Is this a Catch 22? You bet.
In the pumped-up news of this summer — writing about whether al-Qaeda is agonizing over killing us in the caves of Afghanistan or the mosques of Pakistan — triviality triumphed again. At best this is a silly story deserving small space. Of much greater relevance to readers is the undercover and ongoing war on terror, its contours, its authors, its policies, its progress, and its failures. Hundreds of stories lie there waiting to be tackled.
This summer the quest for relevance includes reporters and their editors substituting the exercise of calling sources at think tanks for field trips into the warrens of Afghanistan, Yemen, London, Madrid, Riyadh, and yes, even South Dakota, to find out first hand what is really happening.
It is an old and established idiom in our business that you can find any number of experts to tell you anything you wish to hear. Analysts are a dime a dozen coming in all views, but genuine inquiry backed by analysis is a whole different ball game. To argue that unpaid contributors on the Internet are not members of some self-appointed brotherhood is as elitist as it is defeatist. As for that elusive “trust,” we know it leads to a herd mentality, as in the run-up to the war in Iraq and now in the opposition to it.
It turns out that the same Ms. Fowler gained access in April to a Barack Obama fundraiser in San Francisco that the mainstream media missed. There, again, her digital recorder picked up a remark of Mr. Obama speaking of Americans who “get bitter” and “cling to guns or religion.” That sure was both relevant and legitimate coverage of the presidential campaign.
Chairman Mao Zedong launched and then took back his famed call to “let a hundred flowers bloom; let a hundred schools of thought contend.”
We on the other hand need to let loose that flower power.