MY OWN PERSONAL MEDIA BUBBLE By Michael S. Malone
There’s nothing like writing the (momentarily) hottest column in the country to get a sense of the changing balance of power between the traditional and the new media.
Two weeks ago, in my ABCNews.com column, I took off on a brief tangent from my usual technology and business orientation to instead discuss what I saw as shocking bias by the mainstream media – in particular, television network news, newspapers and newsmagazines – in its coverage of the Presidential campaign.
What happened next is, I think, an interesting glimpse into the dynamics of the traditional and digital media now, nearly a decade into the new century, and a dozen years after the widespread cultural adoption of the Internet.
I began writing my ABCNews.com column during the Dot-com Bubble of 1999. And I’ve been writing it, week in and week out, in good times and bad, for nearly a decade now. Hundreds of columns, in fact – by a factor of about three the longest single writing gig of my professional career. And over that time I’ve learned a lot about both column writing and the new media world. I’ve learned that you can carefully craft a thoughtful column . . .and have nobody read it. And you can dash out a column just to meet your deadline . . . and set the world on fire. I’ve learned how to momentarily goose one’s readership (slam Apple Computer) and how to lose it (write about semiconductors). And I’ve learned that sometimes that one solitary reader out there who understands what you’ve tried to say is worth hundreds who don’t.
The genesis of my media bias column began with a conversation. Last summer, with two other Valley veterans, I started an on-line tech-business newspaper called Edgelings.com. This being a virtual enterprise, each morning the three of us hold an editorial meeting over the phone. Needless to say, it being election season, the conversation often turned to politics – a touchy subject, as one of my partners was an Obama supporter, the other was for McCain. For my part, I try not to talk about politics.
But one morning I found myself interjecting, “Well, one thing we can agree on is that the mainstream media is more one-sided and biased than we’ve ever seen it. I’m ashamed of my profession right now.”
I had never really verbalized that before, but it had certainly been on my mind, especially after perusing the most recent issue of Newsweek, a magazine I’d read since childhood, but which was now so obviously in the tank for Sen. Obama that I swore, on ethical reasons alone, to never read it again.
At midnight a few days later, once again as always up on deadline, after seeing the kids and the pets to bed and saying goodnight to my wife, I sat at the computer in my home office, wearing a pair of jeans and a t-shirt and wrote my column on media bias. The words, as they sometimes do (in good columns and bad) poured out, suggesting that I had already been composing the piece in my unconscious. I tried to write from the heart, and at the same time not come down politically on one side or the other – but just to call for balanced, unbiased reporting from my peers.
I finished at 1:15 a.m., filed the piece and went to bed. At the time I had only two concerns: that there wasn’t enough tech in the column, and that it was about 200 words too long. In the morning, once I was sure it was up on ABCNews.com, I also posted it on Edgelings, and scheduled it to also be carried on our media partner, Pajamas Media. And that was that. When I checked in at noon, there were about thirty reader comments on ABC and about the same number on Edgelings. I had no emails from friends about it – which most often happens when I write an editorial for the Wall Street Journal. So, I basically shrugged, filed the column away in my mind as a moderate success, and then went about my day.
Then all hell broke loose.
What happened next is a lesson not only in the growing power of certain key nodes in the blogosphere, but also the surprisingly enduring cultural strength of the traditional media.
The column seemed to strike a chord in readers, particularly Republicans, for whom the obvious bias of media coverage of the campaign was a growing source of anger. The first major site to pick up the story was Charles Johnson’s Little Green Footballs. Because I could track link-backs through Edgelings, I spotted the story on LGF within minutes of its appearance . . .and watched in amazement as the number of comments quickly grew into the hundreds – the fastest reader response cycle I’ve ever seen.
Meanwhile, the number of comments on Edgelings, no doubt powered by LGF, blew past 100 faster than any story we’d ever written. Then, just as the attention began to level off, the most powerful one-man blogger on the planet, Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit, linked to the story. Glenn has often linked to my column . . . and each time produced what blogospheres call an ‘instalanche” – a sudden and massive spike of traffic. ABC loves them, as do I. But this time, Reynolds linked to the Edgelings version, and now the comments there blew past three hundred and climbing (it would finish at 450), while traffic skyrocketed.
While all of this was going on, the blogosphere was lighting up as well. Scores of blogs, some of them in other countries, now began to comment on my column, many drawing their own collections of comments and reader debates. But now, for the first time, I also began to see the power of the traditional media when it came to conferring credibility. As much as what I actually said, what seemed to matter most to many of these bloggers was who I was when I said it: Mike Malone, of that embodiment of the traditional media, ABC. I was variously described as a ‘liberal reporter’ who had seen the light, and (briefly on my Wikipedia page) a “right wing journalist”. I suspect that most of these writers visualized me sitting in some newsroom at ABC headquarters in New York, heroically taking on the media overlords around me – not a middle-aged guy sitting in his den in California.
Many noted the disclaimer at the end of my column (“This is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News”) and assumed it had just been put there by ABC to distance itself from my apostasy – and that, once the hullabaloo I had created died down I would be summarily fired and driven off into oblivion. In fact, the disclaimer was put there years ago (after I called for Dan Rather to be fired in the National Guard letter case) and, though the powers that be at ABCNews.com were a bit stunned by the huge response, in point of fact my editor had merely cleaned up my copy a little and posted the piece. He knew it was controversial, but he also knew that was my right as a columnist. Any credit for courage goes to him.
By Friday afternoon, the requests for media interviews began – and that’s when I knew I had touched a nerve. What is interesting to note here is that none of the requests came in through Edgelings, but rather through ABC or, incredibly, the publisher of my last book. Apparently, that remains the sole province of the traditional media.
In the end, I only did two radio interviews: one with a Denver station, the other with Lou Dobbs. The latter was especially fun, because Dobbs was even more incensed about the subject than I was and we chatted like two old newsies sitting in a bar swapping horror stories. But after that, I realized that I risked becoming Joe the Journalist, and not wanting my life vivisected by vengeful bureaucrats and fellow reporters, I stopped all interviews.
I’ve been around enough news cycles to sense when a story is winding down, and by Sunday morning I thought it was about done. Both ABC and Edgelings had a couple hundred comments, I’d probably reached two or three million readers and listeners, and it was time to start thinking about next week’s column.
Then came Matt Drudge – the single most influential journalist in America.
On Sunday afternoon, when I spotted a mention of my column on the Drudge Report, my jaw dropped. I knew what was coming. Nobody on the planet, perhaps nobody in history, can move as many readers as Drudge can with a single sentence. Whatever readership I had before now probably increased ten-fold. So did the comments. Because Drudge linked to the ABC version of the column, by Monday morning the number of comments about my column on ABCNews.com had jumped to two thousand. I was now, despite having gone to ground, officially a news phenomenon. The next day, after a friend called, I turned on Fox News to watch as Britt Hume, under a photo of me and above a news scroll carrying my name, read from my column to set up a debate with his panel on media bias. Sean Hannity read a lengthy passage from my column on his radio show.
It couldn’t get much crazier than that – and it didn’t. In the end, the meme I created took on a life of its own and left me, happily, far behind. My column had, unexpectedly, accomplished what we columnists dream of happening just once in our careers: it set off a national debate, and freed people to talk about a topic that had been gnawing away inside their hearts. Within days, other, more famous journalists came forward to agree with what I said. Pew and the Media Research Center released surveys that seemed to confirm widespread and egregious media bias – a belief underscored by multiple polls of the general public. And I noted, with great satisfaction, that in the last twenty four hours of the campaign, the media – embarrassed at last – seemed to try a little harder to balance its reporting . . . only to backslide (as noted even by Tom Shales) on election night.
So, what did I learn from this experience? That it is possible in this new cyber-world to be a lone writer sitting at his laptop in suburbia and write something that actually changes the course of events and, momentary at least, sets the national debate. I also learned that the raw power -and the ability to mobilize people — of the Web and the blogosphere is both immense and growing fast. But legitimacy is still conferred by the traditional media – which makes their duty to be fair and unbiased even greater.
Finally, I also learned that, while it is unsettling to be a momentary media star, it is also depressing afterwards to go back to writing about semiconductors and the Microsoft-Yahoo deal. . .