Thin skins

Two surprising truths about journalists:

First, they give bad interview. You’d think all those years on the other end of the pencil would teach them how to give clear, concise answers to questions … and how to beware of reporters’ tricks. But, no. Reporters being interviewed tend to ramble and enjoy the attention a bit too much and, like a drunken criminal, say too much. That’s why media companies give reporters media training, which should be too ironic to bear. And I suspect that is also why media companies fear giving reporters blogs.

Second, reporters have thin skins. You’d think that all those years of probing, criticizing, attacking, and lampooning others would give them Teflon skin. But, no, like a schoolyard bad boy, if you confront them and criticize them back, they turn either weepy or prickly. Can give, can’t take.

That is not so surprising, after all, when you realize that this is really an issue of control. In the closed worlds of the newsroom, the page, the show, and the media conference, journalists are in control. In the wide-open world of the web, they’re not. And that’s a tough adjustment for some.

See Public Eye. They’re nice people; I’ve met them. But they’re publicly struggling with finding not just their voice and reason for being but also their attitude and their place in this new media world. They’re being at once thin-skinned and prickly. The Anchoress says they need to take a chill pill.

The problem is, PE, while trying hard to be a “blog” is a weird hybrid just now – it hasn’t quite figured out that there is a loosey-goosey quality, a free-wheelingness to blogging that is very distinctive, but that needn’t preclude serious writing or -as evidenced by Michelle Malkin and Brian Maloney’s dogged work on Air America’s misuse of public funds (a story the mainstream media simply does not want to look at) real investigative journalism.

One can’t help feeling that on some level – subconsciously, perhaps – PE feels like it is slumming it a bit, and is looking down its nose at the company it finds itself forced to keep. As much as I like Public Eye – and I do like it – their “journalists stand here and bloggers stand there” vibe is detectable, and nothing demonstrates that better than these two battles the blog has now engaged in, with Jarvis and Hewitt…

The Jarvis kerfluffle was minor. It was just odd that’s Dick Meyer said I made his blood boil. I said he misunderstood or I misstated and in either case, he should cool his jets.

The Hugh Hewitt hissy-fit-fest is far hotter. It started with this effort at Public Eye to list top journlist bloggers (that’s why I don’t like lists, man, they’re meaningless and just get you in trouble). Hewitt had a proper fit, saying it was a bad list that left off conservatives and him, too. He had the hapless Brian Montopoli, author of the list, onto his show. Then Meyer put up his email exchange with Hewitt. Then Public Eye chief blogger Vaughn Ververs wrung his hands over all this and tried to figure out them darned bloggers:

As in the Hewitt example, there is a dual dynamic here. While it’s not entirely fair to make broad characterizations of all bloggers (just as it’s unfair for bloggers to do the same to the MSM), it’s a pattern I’ve noticed on both the left and right.

Bloggers love to ridicule the MSM for being unresponsive, slow, bumbling, unable to innovate, unwilling to change and arrogant. Yet somehow, they want to be part of it. They dismiss mass media even as they compete to mass communicate, shutting off their televisions (when they’re not on them) and closing their newspapers (when they’re not in them) to check their Technorati hits. Bloggers are fond of the gate-keeper metaphor. Seems like they just want a key to come and go as they please.

Bloggers are also fond of holding MSM orgs to the highest of standards (as they should) while eschewing those same standards for themselves. “Facts” and “accuracy” are something for the MSM, not them. They’re just bloggers, after all.

The irony is, the bigger blogger empires become, the more they need the MSM for a foil. Hewitt needs to rail against Public Eye as a tool of corporate media to help his own Web, radio and publishing empire grow larger. The MSM will never do right in their eyes, otherwise they’d be out of business. I’ve always thought of bloggers as the ultimate outsiders of media – independent, brash and unafraid. Increasingly they want to be insiders. What will happen to the revolution once they arrive?

There’s so much irony in that, I don’t need a knife to cut it, I need a samurai sword. Even as Vaughn says it’s unfair to make gross generalizations, he proceeds to do just that as he says that bloggers are driven only by ego — as if TV people are not! — and not by standards (so we have MSM people complaining about the standards of the people who complain about MSM’s standards). Further, we have a media guy acting as a blogger saying that bloggers just want to act as media guys. Jane, stop this crazy thing.

This is no way to win friends and influence bloggers. And then maybe that’s the point of Public Eye or maybe it isn’t. I’m not sure that PE knows what its point is yet. Or its identity. On the one hand, it’s trying to be a blog: They call it a blog; they use blog tools; they swim with the bloggers. On the other hand, it’s trying not to be a blog but an extension of the big media place reaching out to the public: a window into the palace, a spot of transparency. And, you know, either is a fine goal.

Here is advice from the Anchoress to Public Eye:

I think Public Eye will really begin to succeed when it can lighten up a little, when the crew can be proud of their “mothership” which is the venerable Columbia Broadcasting System, but also be able to mock it, and themselves, from time to time…

Perhaps Public Eye would lose some of its formality and stiffness if it were to fill out the blogcrew – currently thick with “journalists” – with a few “non-journalist” blogging types who are able to let fly. It needs a voice or two who are less “Buttondown-J-school-with-suspenders” and more “I’m posting this from my pub…”

Dick Meyer has the balls to enter into the conversation there, as he does with Hewitt; read the comments, too. You have to respect them for that; they’re trying hard; they’re struggling to figure this out. Says Meyer: “PE is neither fish nor fowl; it is a work in progress, and our intention is to communicate — not to be a great blog by blog standards or a great sanitized blogproduct by msm standards.”

What’s my advice? I might tell them to decide which way to go: One choice is to become the blogger inside the castle and really think and speak with the independence — and personal viewpoint — of a blogger; that’s a positioning they decided against when they said their blog would not be opinionated (except about bloggers, apparently). The other choice is to make this instead a window into the palace and its process, the start of a culture of transparency.

But is it a choice? At the other days MT&R Media Center get-together, Terry Heaton disagreed with me that there is an intersection between what he calls mass and personal media. He says they are on parallel tracks. That would say there is nothing to bring them together. That would argue that, indeed, it is a choice.

But then there are Steve Baker and Heather Green at Business Week. They are very much of big media and its standards and processes. But they blog openly and honestly and personally. They are either an intersection or a bridge. I’m not sure they know, for Steve said at the event that “one of the best things a mainstream journalist can do is blog… If I lost my job tomorrow, I’d be happy that at least I had a blog going, as a little bit of a rowboat…. More of us are going to be on our own with our own little brands.” In any case, they’re doing something right. I’d say they are making a model for any big media joint that wants to start blogging.

And here’s the essence of what they do: They try to cut away at the separation that journalists put between themselves and the public they want to serve (a rallying cry of Jay Rosen‘s). Note that Steve doesn’t talk about bloggers in the third person plural or the second person. They think of bloggers in the first person. And shouldn’t that be the real goal of mainstream media blogs: to end that separation, to get back to eye-level (no irony intended) with their public, to be human and honest and open again? It’s not us-vs-them. It’s all us.

And then there’s me. Which choice did I make? I used to say I was mediaman by day, blogboy by night. But now I’m blogboy. In the eyes of some in my old camp, I’m a damned radical, for I believe that journalism needs saving and must change.

Change. That is the real issue here. It is a mistake to think that either MSM or blogging is an established, finished institution against which to measure the world. Blogging knows it is changing, growing, experimenting, learning; that’s obvious. MSM has to learn to do all that again or — as the Wall Street Journal’s Paul Steiger said at the MT&R event — it will die. That’s the way big media should look at the blogs it writes (after it reads a few): not as an opportunity to tell the world more about itself, not as another outlet of publication, broadcasting, and ego — but as a means of conversation and learning and change.

What the hell does that mean? Well, for example: Instead of publishing your list of journlist bloggers, ask for a list. Find out what blogs your readers read. Find out what blogs they think your writers should read. Go to your writers and ask them what blogs they read and then make them read some of the ones your readers recommend and then have your writers write about that. Turn the prism around and look through the other end. That’s the opportunity blogging gives you.