How The Times covers the internet
: Remember how in grade school you found out you were getting the mean or old or bad or weird teacher and you realized you could do nothing but lump it for the year? Or think now how you feel when you get on a six-hour flight and find yourself sitting next to the talkative or double-wide or weird passenger and you realize you have to lump it for the duration.
Well, internet compatriots, it appears we are sitting next to Sarah Boxer of The New York Times for sometime to come.
That came out in the exchange over Boxer’s unjournalism about Iraqi bloggers when, at the bottom of Dan Okrent’s response to my complaints, NYT culture editor Jonathan Landman revealed what Boxer’s job is supposed to be:
Sarah is a critic (she’s done art, photography & theater) with a new beat: Arts & ideas on the Internet. It’s an experiment with fuzzy boundaries….
Well, we have two choices about this. We can take Boxer’s story as an indication of her ability and bias — and Landman’s news judgment — and kick and complain about it. That’s what we’re known for, isn’t it? Or we can try to teach them. That is what Prof. Jay Rosen tries to do in his analysis of the Landman response to my complaints: He tries to show them what they are really saying about the internet in this assignment.
Landman says the aim of the Boxer article was to convey a situation in its opacity. But good reporting is ordinarily the opposite of that: the situation should be more intelligible, and less opaque, when a Times journalist gets done with it. This did not happen with the Boxer piece.
“Sarah was trying to give a sense of the befuddling complexity of an Internet brouhaha.” She was? Who told her to do that? It seems like a more appropriate place to begin the assignment. Culture Desk to Sarah: “All we have here is the befuddling complexity of an Internet brouhaha; maybe you can sort it out.” That’s the journalism part, isn’t it? The finished report is supposed to reduce the “befuddling complexity” of the online world, not produce a more exquisite sense of it.
The article, according to Landman, is “saying that there are lots of wild charges flying around.” It is? Well, why do we need that? “Lots of wild charges getting thrown around” is where a good reporter begins. That is not where the thoroughly reported piece is supposed to wind up.
Something else Boxer was trying to give a sense of, according to her editor: “the layers of potential manipulation what with astroturfing and blogtrolling and invisible dueling backers.” Potential manipulation is what journalism is supposed to overcome, not be “about.” That is true in cultural reporting, in arts journalism, and in every other kind I know of.
“Pro-American Iraqi Blog Provokes Intrigue and Vitriol,” read the headline on Boxer’s piece. Now I know there’s intrigue. Now I know there’s vitriol. When do we get to the journalism?
This is journalism 101, isn’t it? Why are we here? Why are we reporting? Why are we publishing? Why are people paying us? I thought we were here to inform. Landman is saying we’re here to confuse. I don’t need to pay a buck a day to be confused, thank you; I’m confused for free. But Landman has a defense and Rosen punctures it:
Landman explains: it should have been labeled a “Critic’s Notebook.” But that means way more to insiders than everyone else.
Buzzmachine by Jeff Jarvis: now that’s a critic’s notebook! We can page through it and find Jeff’s thoughts–good and bad, right and wrong–on just about everything he cares about, including Iraq The Model, which Jarvis has championed.
And then Jay comes in for the zinger that says it all and it’s a warning to Boxer’s future subjects: the internet, otherwise known as us.
Here’s what I think: Sarah Boxer’s article about Iraq the Model was really about the Net and how you can’t trust anyone or anything that originated on it. Leaving the situation opaque, at the level of a brouhaha, was part of the point. (And in that context, suggesting a CIA connection served quite well.) It remains, however, a strange assignment.
I hope Boxer and Landman and The Times stop and ask themselves why they’re assigning and reporting and publishing the story. How does it inform? If it doesn’t, should you be killing trees — or worse — for this?
Now let me make my own constructive suggestion to Boxer and Landman: If you’re going to report on the internet, you have to dive into the internet. This isn’t just about reading or looking at pages or sitting in a theater, people; that’s the old-media way, the one-way way. The internet isn’t a gallery. The internet is a conversation. You must join in the conversation to experience and report on it. You would not write a travel piece about Berlin without going there and living the place. Well, you can’t write credibly about the internet without going there, either. Take it from me — a fellow journalist, after all — I didn’t understand blogs until I blogged. So here’s my advice:
Sarah Boxer and Jonathan Landman: Start your own blogs. You want to be on the fuzzy edge, then be the first on your block at 43rd Street to put your own views. After all, you are critics. Critics are allowed to have opinions. So share your critical perspective with the audience — and learn what comes next. It won’t hurt (anymore than this). It will teach you what the internet and blogs are really about. It will give you better — more truthful — stories. You will learn that we are deeper than our caricature. And we will learn that you’re deeper than a column of 2-D type.