Keller of The Times writes III
: The epistolary posting continues between Bill Keller of The Times and me and I’m glad it is, for I think we’re honing in on the differences we may — or may not — have regarding this new media world of ours. I’ve created a category so you can read the previous exchanges; start from the bottom and work up. First, Bill Keller’s email:
Before I get to your message, a brief but, I think, illustrative digression. In a talk Saturday to staff and alums of the Columbia daily paper, The Spectator, I mused a bit about some of the subjects you and I have been discussing. I made clear that I regard blogs as a valuable resource for journalists and an instructive source of criticism of our work. I also said that the blog world, as you would expect of a world with free admission, includes some real junk. My exact line was, “At its worst, a blog is a one-man circle jerk.” Now, I could have said (and have said, in less public venues) pretty much the same thing and worse about certain writers and pundits in the mainstream media, but the subject of the moment was blogs. And it is probably a defensible view that self-indulgent writing and posturing are somewhat more prevalent in a medium that is diaristic in form and largely unfiltered. It could also be said that my phrase was a tasteless choice of metaphors for a person in my job speaking in the august (if acoustically challenged) venue of the Low Library. So be it. But that’s what I said, and that’s all it meant.
The interesting thing is that various versions of what I said have circulated in the blogosphere, mostly taking the remark as a wholesale slur of bloggers. I spent a little time this morning sampling the ardent points of view that have coalesced around what people imagine to be my view of bloggers based on their reading of a phrase pulled from a speech, or based on what they assume the editor of the NYT must think of them. Some of the comments make a point that I have frequently made myself — that, heh heh, ain’t it sweet for an editor at the NYT to be on the receiving end of coverage that distorts his views. (My only advice to Nick Lemann when he took over as dean of the Columbia Journalism School was that he should set up A-team and B-team senior seminars in which students write profiles of one another. No student should graduate without the experience of being written about.) But the thing about “the citizen’s media,” is that a distortion or a half-baked interpretation metastasizes in real time, and can quickly acquire the status of conventional wisdom. Even if you have lots of time on your hands, there is little hope of pursuing and correcting the misunderstanding as it scatters across the digital landscape. Maybe eventually something like an accurate version of events emerges organically from this process, but I rather doubt it, and in any case the process itself is a little like watching someone chew with his mouth open.
Watching this entirely minor episode unfold also confirms my concern that in this disaggregated media environment, people tend to gravitate toward information and opinion that confirms their own prejudices, toward zones of comfort and affinity. There are, of course, blogs where you encounter intelligent, provocative debate and reflection, and I value them, but it seems to be a world in which people quickly harvest the stuff that conforms to what they already believe, where there’s a lot more pronouncing and cheerleading than listening and reflecting, and where the market has little tolerance for ambiguity and complexity. (If you have another sister who is a cheerleader, I apologize for any offense given.)
That’s what I meant before about driving traffic toward the extremes. Just so I’m clear, this is a fear, not a conviction. I could be entirely wrong. Maybe the best blogs, the ones that cherish empirical evidence and struggle with nuance and prize intellectual honesty, will prevail in the great marketplace. Or maybe there will at least be robust (and sustainable) islands of serious discourse in the blogosphere — like HBO in the television world or, forgive me, The New York Times in the shrinking pool of serious print media.
I don’t, by the way, believe this polarizing tendency began with blogs. The cockfight school of discourse has a long pedigree, and it began to crowd out serious journalism on TV, for instance, before blogs arose. CNN probably did more damage to our national civic conversation with “Crossfire” — establishing the principle that a balanced discussion meant two ill-informed gasbags shouting epithets at one another — than anything the blog world has yet accomplished. Jeff, you ignorant slut!
I share your distaste for one-size-fits-all journalism, and I don’t think that’s what the NYT provides. We may not carry every size and fashion, but in both the news pages and the opinion pages (those two pages per day with which, I keep reminding people, I have absolutely nothing to do) we carry a lot more than your average department store. And the proliferation of voices beyond what a newspaper manages to include is a good thing, a genuine virtue of blogs. It’s not the variety of the blogosphere that worries me, it’s the dynamic. In the blogosphere, people tend to choose sides and dig in their heels well before evidence can be tested or actual reflection can take place. At least, that’s my impression.
Obviously if I thought blogs should be disdained or dismissed, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But I gotta go.
And my response:
I’ll make some specific suggestions on how to deal with the particular blog situation you raise.
But first, I can’t help but draw parallels between your citizens’-media moment and my major-media moments lately. I didn’t intend to bring the specific complaints I’ve had about Times coverage of blogs into our enjoyable and edifying exchange. But since you raised a case of it’s-news-because-it-happens-to-the-editor, I will do the same and hope you take it in that spirit. Besides, the parallels are too perfect to pass up.
First, there is the story that led to this exchange (bless its heart): In it, The Times quoted me as saying in relation to Eason Jordan, “I wish our goal were not taking off heads but digging up truth.” That was accurate and certainly didn’t make me look bad. But in my original post, I was talking about my fear that established media would portray us as a beheading mob; as snipped and quoted in The Times, that turned out to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Was the quote taken out of context? Perhaps as much as yours was. Was the quote used to fit the writers’ agenda? As much as yours was, I’d say.
And then there is the Sarah Boxer story about Iraqi bloggers that got me so apoplectic. I won’t repeat my complaints now (they’re all here) but I will note that The New York Times’ idle speculation that pro-American Iraqi citizens might be CIA plants spread through big media like your quote spread through small media: The BBC spread it immediately; the Times syndicate spread it as well; and I soon found myself batting it down in a game of pundit wack-a-mole with Eric Alterman on MSNBC. Just as you saw the meme — as we call it — of your circle-jerk quote spread through blogs, so did Boxer’s speculation — and its danger — spread through established media. As you said of blogs: “…a distortion or a half-baked interpretation metastasizes in real time, and can quickly acquire the status of conventional wisdom.” Ditto big media. Or worse, it quickly acquires the status of the official record. And which is heard louder, big media or citizens’ media? Which is more authoritative and, when wrong, more harmful? Which is harder to stop and correct? I did bring the Boxer story to the attention of my friend and former colleague, Dan Okrent, and he did look into it. But his reply came online and not in print; it did not reach the official record, and so Boxer’s speculation stands. (I would like to hear what you think about that story and my issues with it. Maybe that is the excuse for a drink.)
The obvious point: Much of what can be said against blogs can be said against the establishment press, and vice versa.
Now let me suggest how you could have dealt with your blog moment:
The first suggestion is about transparency: When I read The Spectator account of your talk at Columbia, I went online looking for a full transcript or recording so I could judge the remarks in their full context. I didn’t find it but wish I had. This is why I suggest that news organizations should put full interviews and source material online — not because the public is dying for more (they aren’t!) but so those who want to find the context can. If your speech were online and if The Times story about Eason Jordan had linked to my fuller quote, readers could have judged the context (and thus, our reporting and editing)..
The second suggestion is about conversation: Just as you’ve won over folks with this email exchange (and you have), so could you have gone to some of the blogs that snarked at you and responded directly via comments or email. Believe me, you would have impressed and disarmed many of them. These are mostly reasonable people you’re dealing with — they are your readers, after all. If you would have responded to the out-of-context interpretations of your quote, I am confident that your response would have gotten more links and greater Googlejuice than the original blog posts about you. And that would have happened quickly (far faster than any newspaper correction). The distributed nature of this medium would make the correction travel faster than it ever does in print. Go ahead: Try it.
The third suggestion is, again, that you should not judge all blogs by the ones you dislike or who dislike you (just as readers should not judge a paper or journalism by one off-key story or reporter). Out of our email exchange, I’ve seen many positive comments in my blog and in others'; you are winning friends and influencing bloggers and I think you need to include that in your calculation of the value and danger of blog interaction. And though I make blogs sound like the workers’ (or writers’) paradise, very Marxian, the truth is that it’s not at all egalitarian: Go to Technorati.com and look at who has the most incoming links — our proxy for influence, a more deliberate and in many ways better measure than circulation — and then see who’s dissing you and who matters. (See, we can be elitist, too.) I can point you to many discussions that are not of the playground variety: Look, for example, at the strong disagreement playing out right now between Powerline of the right and Matthew Yglesias of the left (a scary smart and talented young guy you should hire, by the way): They are disagreeing strongly and pointedly but intelligently and, all-in-all, civilly. It can happen. It does happen.
Finally, various commenters have pointed out that you would make a great blogger. They’re right. In fact, because you are writing these emails with full expectation that I’m going to post them, I could argue that you are blogging. Welcome to the club, Bill.
: Also note Dan Drezner’s take on the quoting of Keller. For illustration, he took some Keller lines wildly out of context and then said:
What’s interesting about these different Keller episodes is that the Columbia Spectator reporter probably took just the juiciest bit from Keller’s comments regardless of whether they were consistent with the overall tenor of his remarks — whereas Jarvis (“mediaman by day, blogboy by night”) reprinted all of Keller’s comments, allowing one to judge Keller’s argument in toto.
Oddly enough, this is undoubtedly one trait that good bloggers share with the New York Times. The Times, as the “paper of record,” was very good about printing the full text of important documents and speeches before there was a world wide web. The best bloggers, through hyperlinks, can engage in a similar practice when parsing out someone’s comments.