Me and Bill Keller re blogs

March 03, 2005

Keller of The Times writes: The final chapter

: I got one last email from New York Times Executive Editor Bill Keller. Here it is, with my response.

But I need to explain the T-shirt. At the end of our last exchange, I said that because he knew his emails would be posted in public, he was truly blogging and I welcomed him to the club (read: cult). He emailed me and asked when he was getting a T-shirt. I sent him an “I’m Blogging This” shirt. Now I’m dying to get a picture of him in it. So now to the emails. First, Bill Keller:


I’ve mustered enough steam for one last round before I return my full attention to my other job.

I’m not going to re-litigate your dispute with The Times over the Sarah Boxer piece. Anyone who cares can read Dan Okrent’s evenhanded account in his forum at the NYT website, which also includes an extensive response from Jon Landman, the culture editor. I agree with Landman, and I tip my hat to Okrent on one important point, the dangers of blurring the line between criticism and straight reporting. I think your reaction to Boxer’s piece was way, way over the top, especially in its suggestion that she somehow endangered the lives of Iraqi bloggers, a slur that Landman thoroughly debunks.

My study of the blog culture is, I readily admit, very cursory and incomplete, but it’s striking that there seems to be no end to any argument in your world. Every grievance is recycled endlessly, not necessarily spiraling up to a higher level of enlightenment but starting over and over from scratch. It’s Groundhog Day. You were angry about Sarah Boxer’s piece. You wrote to The Times. You got a thoughtful response from the editor in charge, and an additional thoughtful kibbitz from the public editor. But in your complaint to me, you take up the argument from the beginning, as if the replies from Landman and Okrent had not happened, or had not registered. Perhaps that’s because at each turn of the rhetorical wheel new viewers are skimming past who have not, or cannot be bothered to, read into the history of the argument. And so, in each go-round, there’s incentive to resurrect every point in your original indictment, even those that may have been discredited or rendered irrelevant, in hopes of converting the half-informed newcomer. Maybe the blog world needs an equivalent of the courtroom admonition, “asked and answered.”

That’s one thing I was driving at when I remarked on the dynamic of this particular, wonderful but sometimes infuriating medium. It is massively inclusive but everyone brings to it an individual appetite and a sense of entitlement, regardless of whether they have done the homework. You can join the discussion from a position of raw, opinionated ignorance. Sometimes the result is less a conversation than a clamor. Last time, I expressed some frustration that thrice-removed versions of something I said had scattered across the digital globe and prompted reactions that bore no relation to anything I had actually said or thought. Your solution, if I get your drift, was that I should go blog-to-blog, dropping in and conversing, winning friends and setting the record straight. Easy for you to say, since you seem to live without sleep. By the same standard, I could probably win friends for The Times by going door to door in Queens, extolling and explaining the paper to prospective readers, but is that the best use of my time? Direct democracy may work in a Swedish canton, but it doesn’t scale very well, and I kind of think the same thing is true of “citizen’s” journalism. I suspect that for blogging to achieve the status its practitioners aspire to, it will have to become a bit less retail, a little more edited, a little more a product of judgment. In other word, a bit more…like us, the MSM. In fact, it is already happening, isn’t it?

One thing we have not discussed about blogs is the extent to which they are a waste of time. The thing that struck me during my week or so of very elementary and intermittent bloggery is that it is very seductive. (It also helps overcome byline withdrawal.) It would be easy to shirk my job and swap thoughts with you and yours, and the time flies by and at the end we’ve generated an exchange that will be skimmed in haste by some number of people, to what end? And the same thing that is true of blogging is true of reading blogs, which I do pretty regularly: you can while away endless hours, skipping over the surface of half-baked thoughts and every so often colliding with something original or unexpected. Or you could play with your kids. Or go to a museum. Or read a good book. (Or a good newspaper!) The blogosphere may be interactive, but can you honestly say that the ratio of thoughtful conversation to meaningless chatter is any higher than it is on, say, cable TV talk shows? For now, at least, I prefer a newspaper — even granting that it costs more and that I am — in part — entrusting the acquisition of information, the selection of what’s important and the making sense of it to someone else. For now, for me, bloggers are a prequel and a sequel, but not the main event. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?

I’ve found it educational and satisfying and a lot more fun than I’d have expected. You’ve been a gracious host and a stimulating interlocutor, and I love the T-shirt. I owe you two things: a live chat, which I would propose to do chez moi ( ought to get some traffic out of this, yes?) and perhaps you have some thoughts about how to proceed and make it more inclusive without it just being a free-for-all rant, if that’s avoidable. And I owe you a cup of coffee, over which I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on what concretely we can do to advance our common interests. I’ll call to figure out a time, and promise to bring an open mind.

For now, the last word is yours.

Cheers, Bill

And my response:


First, thanks for taking the time and effort to have this conversation and for making it both challenging and cordial. I’ve enjoyed and appreciated this.

Now to your points…

So we disagree. But there is value in that. Perhaps if we have honed in on our differences — which are few — we can say that we agree about everything else. Well, perhaps.

I debated whether to bring Sarah Boxer’s Iraqi blog story into our exchange, out of respect for our blossoming collegiality. But when you raised a specific complaint about your treatment in the blogosphere, I decided that my encounter with the Timesphere was the most fitting counterpart I could produce. Now I’m glad I brought it up, for it’s good that we identify the differences; that is part of the process of defining this new thing we have and how it relates to the old.

And we do disagree: I stand by what I said; you stand by the story. I don’t think the story was up to Times standards; you do — and you, after all, are the man who sets those standards. You also disagree with my prescription for how you could have treated your blog virus (more on that in a minute). But those differences are not the point here. They are (with apologies to Eason Jordan) collateral damage in this discussion. Here, I think, is real revelation that comes from this particular back-and-forth:

I’m glad I brought up the Boxer story because I’m glad you called my response to it “way, way over the top” — because that illustrates the more fundamental difference between these media. Namely…

Blogs are personal. Bloggers are passionate.

Journalism is institutional. Journalists are dispassionate.

Blogs are just people talking. And maybe that’s the way journalists should look at them. Oh, yes, blogs do journalism. But when you read bloggers and think of them in your terms as journalists — and then you hear these voices that are passionate, personal, brash, opinionated, immediate, irreverent, persistent, grating, and loud — I’ll bet it shoots a hot spike up your spine. Journalists don’t talk like that! Mobs do! I understand that. I went to J-school and drank from the cup. It was hard for me to deprogram when I became a columnist, let alone a blogger. But I’ve come to cherish this new medium precisely because the voice is so earnest and honest and human.

So, if you want, think of bloggers not as journalists but as citizens (no, sorry, I almost forgot you didn’t like that). Or think of them as the people (no, that’s still not it — too Internationale, don’t you think?). Instead, think of bloggers as readers (if we’re lucky). But to paraphrase Jay Rosen, these readers can now write — and so your writers should now be reading. Do you and your staff want to hear what your readers have to say? I hope you do. Of course, you do. Well, blogs give you a new way to listen… without having to knock on doors in Queens (or Washington).

And, by the way, I wasn’t suggesting that you needed to respond to every blogger — or knock on every door — in the case of your remixed quote. If you had responded directly to one of the bloggers — challenged them, called them on taking you out of context — I’ll guarantee that bloggers themselves would have spread your response for you. That’s how this distributed medium works: our audience gives us content and distribution and marketing.

To reply to a few of your other points, just to wrap things up:

You’re quite right that — knowing this exchange was going to be public and knowing that your involvement would bring in new participants — I should have linked to the earlier responses regarding Boxer’s story from Okrent and Landman in Dan’s forum. I violated our ethic of the link, which we hold dear if not holy (it is our best proof that we are not an echo chamber). So when I post this email, I will post those links.

You’re also right that discussions don’t seem to end here, or that they take their own damned sweet time doing so. But I say that’s good for a few reasons: First, this isn’t a paper with limited pages or a show with limited minutes or, yes, a medium with an editor; here, everyone who wants a day gets a say; the populist in me loves that. Second, the persistence of the blogs sometimes milks the wisdom of the crowd; that is, in Rathergate, one person knew about Microsoft Word, another about Selectrics, another about how the Guard works, and together they got closer to the truth than Rather did (on TV, we’d call that team coverage). Third, if big media’s greatest strength in the public arena is bigness, then bloggers’ greatest strength is that persistence. Bloggers did not stop hammering on Trent Lott (or rather on big media to cover the story) or on Dan Rather (who tried to dismiss the discussion). Persistence yields volume if more people post and link and discuss a story or a notion — if, as we say, the meme propagates [good Lord, I can hear you thinking, why can’t these people just speak English?]. If that doesn’t happen, the story, the notion, the meme dies a just death.

I also want to respond to your view that blogs are too massively inclusive and need editing. Blogs are edited — by bloggers. And I don’t mean that just in the words of Ken Layne: “We can fact-check your ass.” I mean that thanks to our ethic of the link, the cream rises. Look at Technorati, where links approximate “authority.” This new medium is neither anarchy nor direct democracy. It is very much a meritocracy.

And, finally, I clearly don’t think that blogging — reading or writing — is a waste of time. I don’t read all blogs. I read the good ones (good as defined by one judge: me — which is why I can indeed say that blogs, for me, beat Crossfire). These blogs save me time. As Jeff Greenfield at CNN told me one night, he starts every morning reading blogs because they find the good bits for him. That is the essential value proposition of news blogs: We read for you. But more important than that, if blogs do help me to hear the voice of the people, then I don’t consider that to be a waste of time, not a bit.

Now, at last, let’s end on our fundamental agreement: I, too trust newspapers — for news. Even if they won’t admit it, I think most bloggers also trust most newspapers for most of the news (or they wouldn’t link to them; they’d have little to link to). But what I trust blogs for is hearing the voice of those people. In that way, these media are complementary, even if they don’t know it. And that, Bill, is where we began.

I look forward to chatting (but I’ll issue a challenge: if you wear your blog T-shirt, I’ll wear a Times apron and green eyeshade).

I’m sorry that I went on longer (we are unaccustomed to the scarcity of ink or paper). Also, being that I had the first word, I should have given you the last. But, hey, we’re bloggers. We believe there is no last word….



: You can read the entire exchange with Keller here (start at the bottom and scroll up)

: LATER: Gawker puts it all in perspective:

First Brad and Jen. Then Charlie and Denise. Now, another beloved couple is calling it quits: Jeff Jarvis and Bill Keller.

Sad. It seems like just yesterday these two were strolling arm-in-arm in the park while talking about blogs and MSM, sharing Frrrozen Hot Chocolate at Serendipity 3 and making jokes about Daniel Okrent, looking deep in each others’ eyes and seeing their own reflections, and generally confirming our precious belief that love is possible on the internet.

Posted by jarvis at 08:44 AM

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February 24, 2005



: It took no time for the email exchange between Bill Keller of The Times and me to become the butt of a Gawker post. I can’t speak for Keller, but I somehow feel as if I have arrived. If only I could get them to stalk me.

: We got Wolcotted, too, though gently (or else Wolcott fears I’ll pull the plug on his server).

Not since Humphrey Bogart and Claude Rains strolled together into the backlot mist at the close of Casablanca has a more beautiful friendship been forged than that between Jeff Jarvis and NYT editor Bill Keller…. He should courteously ignore Jeff’s advice that he contact more bloggers to address their concerns and snarky complaints–he starts that up, and he’ll never get anything done. True, it would immunize him from blogworld accusations of being arrogant and aloof, like Howell Raines, but he’s got plenty enough writers and whiners under his own roof to worry about without undertaking missionary work in the boiler rooms of comments sections….

Posted by jarvis at 09:50 PM

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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.

Best, Bill

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 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.

best, jeff

: 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.

Posted by jarvis at 11:50 AM

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February 23, 2005

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,


Posted by jarvis at 09:05 AM

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February 21, 2005

Keller of The Times speaks

: NY Times Executive Editor Bill Keller spoke at Columbia on topics including blogs:

Keller’s speech focused on the struggle of print journalism to maintain its relevance in the face of constant cable news updates, increased blogging, and failures in credibility.

He noted that, according to a recent opinion poll, the public’s trust in journalists is at its lowest point in decades. He attributed this in part to the increasingly polarized nature of the American public, who look to the press for support of their viewpoints.

“At the moment,” he said, “the major press is under attack from ideologues on the right and left.”

Keller also sees “blogging,” or online writing that blurs news and commentary, as a mixed blessing. While he celebrated the blogger’s ability to uncover breaking news, he noted that a blog’s inherent bias might be detrimental to the reader. “A blog is still a view of the world through a pinhole,” he said, noting that it can sometimes fall as low as being a “one man circle jerk.”

Mickey Kaus is disturbed by the picture he painted.

: I got an email response to my response to his reponse to my post from Keller and I wanted to let you know that but I’m not responding or posting yet because I’m on vacation (kind of) and even Bill said I could deal with it after I get back (though at least one commenter here is less understanding).

Posted by jarvis at 09:56 PM

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February 20, 2005

Keller of The Times writes

: The other day, I wrote an open letter here to Bill Keller, executive editor of The New York Times, suggesting that we should get professional and citizen journalists, Timesmen and bloggers, together to find common ground. Mr. Keller responded.

Let me first confess that I’m late telling you about that response because, well, I’m lazy or busy (pick your excuse). I didn’t even respond to Mr. Keller for two days because I didn’t want to just dash off an email to the editor of the damned NY Times. He emailed me here and there wondering what had become of his response and my manners. So I apologize to him and you for not making it clear earlier that he responded promptly.

We had an enjoyable if sandy exchange of email. I said I would blog that we’d had that and wouldn’t say more yet because the exchange wasn’t over. He said I could blog as much of the emails as I wanted. He outdid me in the transparency derby and boy, am I embarrassed.

So here is Bill Keller’s email to me and mine back. Please turn on your [wit] and [satire] tags, folks, and don’t take Mr. Keller literally on everything he says; this is how newspaper folks talk to each other; it’s our way to be cool. In other words: Be nice. First, his response to me:

Dear Mr. Jarvis,

Thank you for your open letter. I admire the initiative you have shown in appointing yourself the representative of tens of thousands of bloggers in what you call “the citizens’ media.” (btw, why “citizens”? Isn’t that a little insensitive to stateless bloggers, or bloggers bearing only green cards? “People’s media” strikes me as more inclusive, and it has a pedigree. Just a thought.) I applaud your entrepreneurial spirit. When I was in high school, several classmates and I were assigned to represent Peru at a Model United Nations conference in Berkeley. One member of our delegation, who shared your gift for bold opportunism, proposed that when the gathering broke into committees to draft resolutions on the issues of the day each of us should walk to the head of our meeting room. Then we should casually take charge of organizing the selection of a committee chairman. Naturally, chutzpah was rewarded. We were all selected chairmen of our respective committees. Peru took over the United Nations. Well, it was only the MODEL United Nations, not a mighty engine of discourse like the blogosphere, but you take my point.

Sorry for the digression. A little case of blogorrhea.

Okay, enough Mr. Wise Guy. Mr. Jarvis, you and I have some things in common. We’re guys of the same generation who have spent most of our lives laboring in the MSM. We are both devoted to the cause of a well-informed citizenry. I suspect we both feel proud and humbled to play a part in that cause. We both understand that the media world is changing in profound and exciting ways — although you seem pretty convinced that you know where it ends up, while I’m not so certain of the trajectory. We should probably be on a first-name basis.

In your open letter you propose to lead a delegation from the citizen’s media to a kind of summit meeting with editors and reporters of The Times, where we would all “vent,” eat bagels, and then negotiate some kind of cooperation. I’m enthusiastically in favor of healthy dialogue among people engaged in a common pursuit. Jill Abramson’s presence at the recent blog conference in Cambridge demonstrates, I think, that I’m not the only one here who feels that way. At the same time, I’m not sure what you see as the possible fruit of a blog-Times meeting. Why would anyone who has the infinite audience of the Internet at his disposal want to vent for a select audience of MSM dinosaurs? And, in any case, what’s the point of negotiating a compact with an institution you — or at least your more theological brethren in the blogosphere — regard as irrelevant? And, finally, what, aside from a little creative friction, is wrong with the relationship we have? We can and do use blogs as a source of tips, course corrections, leads and insights without requiring a more formal collaboration along the lines you seem to be suggesting. In turn, our website is one of the, if not the, most linked news source for bloggers; we are a major supplier of news and conversation for the blog world, without anyone having to organize a meeting or negotiate a protocol. In other words, for all the talk of rendering us obsolete, and all your concern about MSM condescension (more perceived than real, I believe, but that’s easy for me to say), The Times and the blog world have an extremely robust relationship. Seriously, what does a meeting get either of us?

I’ll tell you what. Let’s dispense with the bagels and conference room (so Old Media) and organize a live chat on-line. I’ll take an hour off from my evil left-wing (or is it right-wing?) conspiracy to bamboozle the world, and we’ll swap thoughts. I’m bound to learn something.

Can I just state something for the record? While we probably have our differences on the role of the MSM (btw, I personally favor “elite media,” at least as it pertains to the NYT) I would like to make clear that I consider blogs relevant and important. I do not hold them in disdain, as you imply. I won’t risk embarrassing my favorite bloggers by identifying them (except to say that buzzmachine is bookmarked in my office and at home) but I find the best of them to be a source of provocative insights, first-hand witness, original analysis, rollicking argument and occasional revelation. As I’m sure you will agree, you can also find bloggers who are paranoid, propagandistic, unreliable, hate-filled, self-indulgent, self-important and humorless. (Just like people! See above, “people’s media.”)

I hope you will accept this in the same constructive spirit as your open letter. And if not, I hope you will have countless hours of fun fly-specking it for evidence of bad attitude and hidden agendas.

Best regards, Bill Keller

And here is my response, in turn:

Mr. Keller,

I apologize for the syncopated converation. I’ll blame the delay on the needless insanity that precedes vacations: Yes, even bloggers and online guys get busy; hell, every minute of every day is a deadline for us. I’ll also blame not wanting to dash off a reply to the editor of the NY Times.

I’ll digress…

My college Model UN team from Claremont (Len’s alma mater) was Romania. Exhibiting, as you put it, bold opportunism, I practically led a world takeover. Good thing (a) it was only the model UN and (b) I didn’t stay at Claremont with all the conservative poli sci majors and plot a real world takeover or at least an invasion of Iraq. I went into journalism instead.

I like the name “people’s media.” I briefly called it “populist media” but was quickly convinced, by Jay Rosen, that that brought along as much baggage as a Delta flight. Anything is better than “blog,” don’t you agree? And, by the way, it’s not just tens of thousands of bloggers; it’s 8 million bloggers (about half active) with 32 million readers, rapidly growing (says Pew). And that doesn’t count

As for “MSM,” I object to the view that established media is mainstream. You’re right — it’s elitist. It’s the blogs that are the mainstream. I prefer to call what we do in suits big media.

But I’ll stop digressing.

So let me begin by making this clear: I love The Times. I have funny stories about applying for a job there when I was a news nipper (one involving Sidney Schanberg, the other involving a family friend who spotted me in the newsroom and told me to get out before it was too late). I respect, admire, cherish, and yes, love The Times. It’s tough love, though. It’s creative friction, as you say. It’s about the conceit of thinking that the best can be even better.

So, yes, I go to The Times before any other news source and I’m sure I link to The Times more than any other source (including my employer’s). But in some recent stories (the story in question, Sarah Boxer’s on the Iraqi bloggers, and a few others), I have sniffed an air of disdain for bloggers. I am not saying that you yourself hold bloggers in disdain or that The Times does or that most reporters do; I’m saying that I have found it in certain quarters, exhibited in certain stories.

And my greatest hubris in this is not to represent bloggers but instead to think that I can defend bloggers to journalists and journalists to bloggers. You see, I’m not a world dominator. I’m something even harder to bear: a polyanna. I do earnestly believe — as someone who straddles both worlds: mediaman by day, blogboy by night — that we must work together to improve news, inform the public, and even save journalism. It’s about changing the relationship of news to the public — getting past the idea that news is done and fishwrap when we’re done with it and realizing that publishing is the start of the conversation, for that is when the public corrects us and adds information and perspective we did not have. It’s about extending the newsroom in ways we cannot afford to do, as our revenue shrinks. It’s about recapturing credibility, respect, and humanity for journalism. It’s about changing news together (and, no, I don’t know where this trajectory takes us, but we both certainly know it’s not going to stay the same). When bloggers hold journalists in disdain, I scold them and remind them that they would be nothing without reporters; they are not Danny Pearl, sacrificing his life to find the truth, and they are not the Wall Street Journal, supporting him in that quest. And when reporters disdain bloggers, I remind them that they are dismissing the public they seek to serve.

I wrote up a proposal for a (pardon me) Citizens’ Media Center and damned near got funding for it…. The goal is to teach journalism students how to recast their relationship with the public via this medium, to teach bloggers the skills and standards of professional journalism, and to teach big media how to interact with the public in new ways via this medium. One of the deliverables (as I’m told one says in grant proposals) is to bring together bloggers and reporters — that is, citizen journalists and professional journalists — to build understanding, to show that we’re not enemies, to demonstrate that we share a common goal to inform the public, and to demonstrate that we can better do that together.

(I warned you that I’m harder to take than a world dominator. I’d far rather have a drink with Donald Rumsfeld than Dr. Phil, wouldn’t you? But I fear that right now I sound like Dr. Phil and that frightens and horrifies me.)

That is the basis of the open letter to you. I knew that bloggers would object to that story in The Times, as I did. But I decided to try a positive spin, to argue that we have to get past these misunderstandings and find common ground and agenda. I also knew how powerful it was for Len [Apcar, editor of] to come to Bloggercon and for Jill [Abramson, Times managing editor] to come to the Harvard confab. These events were exercises in bridge-building (even if over the River Kwai). And so, I believed that the best response to the latest Times blog story was not to load the snark gun but, instead, to play the Coke commercial.

Why get together? Why not? We’re journalists. We’re curious. And the editorial “we” in this case refers both to professionals and bloggers. The more contact there is right now, the more conversation, the more understanding, the better. It’s not about writing a compact; it’s about talking eye-to-eye. But that’s me: a representative of the MODEL UN.

I’ll accept any invitation you offer. I’d be honored to.

But I think this isn’t about me. I’m already MSM (hell, I worked for People and EW and TV Guide… I’m all too MS). I already fancy myself a citizen journalist, too. I’d suggest that this isn’t about you, either. It’s about the rank and file of both worlds understanding that they’re colleagues, not enemies (as I fear each is too often portraying the other). If that quest is full of crap, then fine: nothing ventured, nothing lost. But if there’s benefit in some smart folks who care about the same things from different vantage points having a bagel or coffee or cabernet or chat together, then I figured it couldn’t hurt to try.

So I’ll obnoxiously throw the potato back in your lap: Want to do a chat? Great; count me in. Want me to propose a more representative blogger or bloggers to do it? Eager to help. Want to break bagel together? Wonderful. You name it.

My goal is to get bloggers off their disdain for The Times as the poster parent for mainstream media and to get Times reporters, as the role models for all others, to get past their isolated though still sometimes evident disdain for bloggers.Or maybe I should just butt out and let nature take its course.

And, yes, Bill, I’d be honored to be on first-name basis.


– jeff

Speaking of letters to and from The Times…

: Dan Okrent today wrestles with questions about letters to the editor at a paper. And I’ll once again have the hubris to suggest a few solutions.

I rarely read letters to the editor because I find them so leached of opinion, humanity, blood, and context that they’re boring. I do read them in British papers, which often celebrate the scuffle, and local papers, where I can sense the humanity behind them.

Okrent says The Times damned near has a policy against publishing letters that attack the paper. When you think about that, it’s amazing. The column should be called Letters The Editor Picked.

The letters department receives 1,000 messages every day, and publishes 15. Beyond that, many of the paper’s readers find certain practices and policies regarding letters either dumbfounding or objectionable. Chief among these is the paper’s general hesitance to publish letters that make accusations against The Times, criticize writers or editors, or otherwise call into question the newspaper’s fairness, news judgment or professional practices.

Dan has some suggestions. He suggests putting letters about stories with those stories (though that becomes useless once those stories shift to a paid archive, eh?). He suggests moving letters in the paper up into the sections to which they pertain; agreed. He also wants to see the letters reporters write to readers so they are not squandered on an audience of one.

Of course, I’ll suggest that weblogs are a better solution and I’ve made these suggestions to other media execs who’ve asked:

: Next to every story, list the links to that story (via Technorati, PubSub, and trackbacks). Of course, that’s frightening to an editor; it so uncontrollable. But it’s happening anyway: When Okrent wrote his first column, I sent him its Technorati Cosmos with a note that said, “Your reviews are in” (and he loved it). People are looking up the links anyway. I’m sure there’ll soon be plug-ins for browsers and RSS readers letting you see all the links to the thing you’re reading. It’s obvious that these are external; the paper didn’t write the blog posts. So why shouldn’t the paper enable the conversation? Of course, this works best when every story — in newspapers and from TV and radio — has a permalink.

: If reporters and editors wrote blogs themselves and engaged in the conversation there, editors seem to fear that the talk will be about them, not about the stories. I’ve argued with editors that the opposite will happen, for the audience will no longer be speculating what the person thinks; they’ll know and then they can go on to discuss substance. This serves to advance stories. This also serves to solve Okrent’s problem: A letter written to an audience of one is not an efficient means of publishing.

: Why not start a forum for corrections to stories? Well, I can answer that question: Because it might well devolve into the Viotriol Corner. Papers will want to control that to the extent that they weed out attacks for attacks sake rather than arguments for substance’s sake. OK, then edit it still, but don’t be constrained by the space on an editorial page: Put up all the letters and emails and posts that pass the simplest test of civility. We believe that more information is better than less, right?

: They could even encourage the conversation by adding a “Blog This” button to stories.

: And I just saw that Rebecca MacKinnon has similar ideas.


: On the email exchange above, Hoots says:

Jarvis posts both billet-douxs this morning so we can see how high-profile people compete to out-casual one another, without giving an inch when engaging in a polite power struggle. (Takes a bit of reading between the lines and drawing unsupported inferences to work that out, but the emails can be read at several levels.

And Tom Watson says:

New York Times editor Bill Keller fisks Jeff Jarvis big-time (and with some style and humor) and Jeff – to his infinite credit – reports the entire thing.

Oh, I wouldn’t call that a fisking. I’d call that amiable tweaking and I liked it. You should see the emails that go back and forth between me and one of my mentors in the business, Star-Ledger editor Jim Willse; we all think we’re writing emails at the Round Table.

Posted by jarvis at 01:00 AM

| Comments (76)

February 14, 2005

TO: Bill Keller, New York Times

FROM: Jeff Jarvis, blogger

RE: The Times’ blog problems and an invitation

: I’m going to end this with an open invitation to Bill Keller, editor of The New York Times. But first….

The New York Times media beat reporters got beaten badly on the Eason Jordan story — by [gasp] weblogs and cable news — and so how do they react? By catching up their readers on what they missed? Of course not. They react by lashing out at weblogs.

This morning’s story by Katharine Q. Seelye, Jacques Steinberg, and David F. Gallagher — under the headline, “Bloggers as News Media Trophy Hunters” — is another example of the disdain in which many quarters of The Times — not all — hold citizens’ media.

This being The Times, many of the slaps are subtle. When they quote Edward Morrissey of Captains Quarter, who stayed on top of the Jordan story, they make a point of saying he is “a call center manager who lives near Minneapolis” Read: “He’s not one of us. He’s not a real journalist.”

When they acknowledge that Jordan was forced out, they say:

Some of those most familiar with Mr. Jordan’s situation emphasized, in interviews over the weekend, that his resignation should not be read solely as a function of the heat that CNN had been receiving on the Internet, where thousands of messages, many of them from conservatives, had been posted.

I think they mean that to be read: “The bloggers didn’t do this; they can’t take credit for this head; that’s our job to behead the powerful; we’re The Times.” But I read it this way: “There’s much more to the Jordan story that The Times also missed.”

But some of the story is hardly subtle. When it comes to quoting media bloggers, they ignore the wise and balanced writings of Jay Rosen on the story and instead, quote the poison-pen letter sent to Rosen by big-media veteran Steve Lovelady: “The salivating morons who make up the lynch mob prevail.”

And, yes, they quote me — from the blog; they did not phone or email me for specific comment — and they pick that quote carefully:

But while the bloggers are feeling empowered, some in their ranks are openly questioning where they are headed. One was Jeff Jarvis, the head of the Internet arm of Advance Publications, who publishes a blog at Mr. Jarvis said bloggers should keep their real target in mind. “I wish our goal were not taking off heads but digging up truth,” he cautioned.

And, of course, that makes it look as if I’m wringing my hands over the morals of my fellow bloggers when, in fact, I’m worried about precisely what The Times is doing here: using this episode to call us a lynch mob. Here’s what I said after that line:

We don’t want to be positioned as the news lynch mob — which is where a radio interview yesterday tried to go — but as the press of the people. Of course, big media can be a lynch mob, too. But that doesn’t mean it’s an example we should follow.

What a handy ‘snip.’

The Times also tries to subtly keep alive Jordan’s assertion on military targeting journalists with this line:

Through the latest uproar, the substance of Mr. Jordan’s initial assertion about the military targeting journalists was largely lost.

Only problem is, they — like we — still do not know the “substance of Mr. Jordan’s initial assertion” because we don’t have the tape from Davos and they didn’t even interview Jordan.

And there’s one more subtle dig:

The online attack of Mr. Jordan, particularly among conservative commentators, appeared to gain momentum when they were seized on by other conservative outlets. A report on the National Review Web site was followed by editorials in The Washington Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as by a column in The New York Post by Michelle Malkin (a contributor for Fox News, CNN’s rival).

Read: “Nobody would pay attention to this story if it weren’t picked up by real papers.” Also read: “Blogs are a conservative lynch mob.”

But, of course, what this doesn’t say is that the story was reported by the publication that used to be The Times’ nemesis before citizens’ media and cable news came along: The Washington Post. It was reported there by Howard Kurtz even though he had to navigate the conflict of interest of being a CNN employee. (Note, by the way, that Kurtz was also the person who brought the discussion to CNN’s air yesterday and let it be known that I felt free to say anything about the story, the network, and Jordan there and it was made clear that we would be emphasizing Jordan as the major part of our discussion.) You’d think that The Times would have beaten Kurtz to the story. But they were beaten by the Post, blogs, cable news — oh, the shame; oh, the humiliation — and why: Because they dismissed this as the mutterings of a rabble, not the news judgment of the people.

Now add this to Sarah Boxer’s horrendous unjournalism about Iraqi bloggers and other feature stories about bloggers without lives and many an offhand slap and it is clear that:

The Times has blog issues. So…

TO: Bill Keller, New York Times

FROM: Jeff Jarvis, blogger

RE: An open invitation

Mr. Keller,

I propose that we hold a one-day meeting of webloggers and Times editors and reporters to discover how the interests of both groups are aligned and how we can work together to improve news.

The problem, Mr. Keller, is that many of your reporters and editors hold citizens’ media in obvious disdain that has become all too public in your pages. This means that they are slapping the public you would serve and, in fact, your own readers: people who still read news. This also means that they are missing stories — witness this one. They are missing the opportunity to correct stories and do better reporting — witness Boxer’s story. They are doing The Times and its reputation in this new medium and with the next generation no favors. That is not true of everyone in the paper, of course; we have seen cases of The Times getting ideas and reporting from blogs and listening to the interests of the public through them. But that is clearly not true in other quarters.

So let’s get some Times journalists and citizen journalists together in a room.

The agenda is quite simple:

1. Let’s spend a few hours letting each group vent at the other to get over it.

2. Then let’s explore our common interests — quite simply, informing the public, acting as the people’s watch on authority, getting to the truth, and creating a better-informed democracy.

3. Finally, let’s investigate the ways that citizens’ media and professional media can help each other find stories and find the truth and listen to the public and extend the eyes and ears of The Times and its journalists in ways never possible before.

If we do this right, the reporters and the bloggers will learn that the “other side” is not another side at all; this isn’t about monoliths and mobs but about good people trying hard to do the right thing. Times Managing Editor Jill Abramson spent a few days at Harvard in a room with bloggers and didn’t seem to come off any worse for the wear; I think she and the bloggers came away, instead, with better understanding and respect.

So how about it, Mr. Keller? We’ll bring the bagels, you bring the sandwiches.


: Here’s Michele Malkin’s roundup of dino reaction.

: The Wall Street Journal editorializes, making the assumption that this is the only reason Jordan is out (I don’t believe we know that part of the story at all):

That may be old-fashioned damage control. But it does not speak well of CNN that it apparently allowed itself to be stampeded by this Internet and talk-show crew. Of course the network must be responsive to its audience and ratings. But it has other obligations, too, chief among them to show the good judgment and sense of proportion that distinguishes professional journalism from the enthusiasms and vendettas of amateurs.

Posted by jarvis at 07:01 AM