Keller of The Times writes, again

Keller of The Times writes, again

: Here is the next installment in the email exchange between New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller and me. The saga starts here and continues here. Bill’s latest:

Dear Jeff,

Thanks, first of all, for taking my letter in the spirit intended, for taking the sarcasm in stride — and for encouraging any humor-impaired readers to do likewise. I try to keep my smart-aleck tendencies in check these days, but I can’t seem to get anywhere near that 12th step.

Frankly, I don’t find much of anything in your reply to disagree with. I regard the blogosphere as both a treasury from which we draw ideas and information, and a stimulating bull session where our work lives on. It’s only natural that in the blogosphere, a medium with a very low threshold, you find a lot of self-indulgent nonsense, misinformation, propaganda and paranoia. But I have an equally long and more unforgiving list of complaints about the more traditional media. My quarrel with the blog world, to the extent I have one, is really with the zealots — the people whose pose is revolutionary, whose articles of faith are that All Information Must Be Free (as if we should stop paying Dexter Filkins to risk his life in Iraq) and that Editing Is Evil (abolish those fact-checking departments and copy desks and let the Truth emerge organically from the collision of blogs) and so on. My anxiety about the blog world is not that it will put us out of business but that it contributes to an erosion of middle ground, that it accelerates a general polarization of the nation into people, right and left, who are ardently convinced and not very interested in exposing themselves to facts or ideas that contradict their prejudices.

You describe yourself as a Pollyanna, but I think the word you are looking for is one that has been sadly degraded: politician. I’m convinced that the most important division in human affairs is probably not the one between left and right, liberal and conservative. It’s the one between zealotry and understanding, between absolute conviction and compromise, between preachers and politicians. True believers, whatever their persuasion, tend to start with the answer and therefore they don’t have to THINK about the question. They have moral clarity, often achieved without the benefit of information or reflection. (Full disclosure: my own Claremont connection is Pomona College, and I’m paraphrasing a commencement address I gave there a few years ago. And I tweak bloggers for being self-referential??)

As for your meeting proposal, I’m as sociable as the next guy. I’ll give you a call.

Please feel free, btw, to deal with this after your vacation. I keep imploring people at The Times to have a life; there’s no reason you shouldn’t have one, too.

Cheers, Bill

And here is my response. (The references to pinholes and circle jerks are, in case you’ve been on vacation too, from Keller’s speech at Columbia.)

Dear Bill,

Thanks for the reply (and for the vacation dispensation).

We do, of course, agree about most of this. But we do disagree about whether the blog world will erode the middle ground or can help rediscover it. Certainly, I understand misapprehension about the zealots of online who collect at the edges. They’re unpleasant bunches, yet they do not represent their fellow bloggers any more than squeegee men represent their fellow New Yorkers or local radio-news hacks their fellow journalists.

I’ll argue instead that it is big media who have, to use your words, accelerated “a general polarization of the nation into people, right and left….” Who is trading on the notion that we are suddenly a land of red v. blue but big media? Except for the oddities of the electoral college, as you know, our political maps would more accurately show us to be a nation of urban vs. exurban. Or I could be really difficult and contend that the close votes in the last two presidential elections actually indicate that we are getting closer. Big media have made division the key narrative of the age.

So next I’ll argue that by allowing a wide variety of opinions and perspectives to find voice online, blogs can improve the discourse and will help us reclaim that middle ground. The national debate is not served by homogenizing discussion and disagreement into the one-size-fits-all package that big media has had to become or into the one-from-column-A/one-from-column-B teetering balance of cable news. Don’t we often say, nostalgically, that towns were better served when they had many newspapers of differing views serving varied audiences? Isn’t that what blogs resurrect: the cacophony of the town square?

Are blogs an echo chamber? On the edges, they are. But there is a vast middle ground of people who are neither red nor blue and defy such simplistic media categorization. We are who we are and our blogs represent us. Also note that we link to those with whom we disagree so we can disagree. That cacophony of voices and viewpoints seems so unruly to those of us who’ve made our living ordering the world for print. But the noise is good. It’s democratic. If we’re going to look for closed societies and echo chambers, shouldn’t we look at the gang covering the prepackaged press conference that’s now a cable commodity? Shouldn’t we, as NYU’s Jay Rosen has urged, raze spin alley?

From my own experience, blogs have made me more open to different political viewpoints (to the occasional consternation of those on either edge). From a journalistic perspective, blogs have taught me that news should be a conversation and that when big media acts as if the story is done once it’s printed, that is just about as closed-off as the closed-minded refusing to hear another side. Closing discussion is aggravating to those who have more to say. So the problem is not that we have too many voices but that too few are heard. That’s the real pinhole.

The trick, then, is how big media can take advantage of the new town square and let it be heard to find the middle ground, the common ground. Bloggers already know well how to take advantage of the reporting and editing of big media; the work of reporters is our link blood. Both camps need to acknowledge the value of the other and recognize that, indeed, their common enemy is zealotry and ignorance. That’s my hope.

One more word about roles: I know that almost every blogger, once tied down, will agree that most reporters are invaluable. If you tie me down, I’ll say the same about many editors (though when I once asked Nick Denton in an instant message why we liked blogging so much, he replied with characteristic eloquence, “No editors,” and I agreed). I admire your attempt to reclaim the role of the politician as one who finds wise compromise; good luck. But last night, when I read your email from my Treo to my sister, the Rev. Jarvis — a most moderate and mainstream Presbyterian pastor — she did object to your lumping preachers with zealots. And that’s the problem with all these roles: There are bad reporters and ham-handed editors and deaf politicians and blind preachers and venomous bloggers but we should not judge any of these roles by their worst. So in trying to tell bloggers not to judge journalists by their worst or journalists bloggers by their worst I am still a damned optimist.

Oh, and who says bloggers don’t have editors? You should see all the circle-jerk jokes I edited out of this email.

All the best,