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Saturday, 28 May 2011

Jay Rosen, the news commentator, turns his gaze on his blog onto what he calls the "neurotic" relationship between the mainstream media and bloggers. The MSM, he says, "others" bloggers and in so doing tries to defend its ancient prerogatives. But people aren't listening, it seems. The media continue to be in financial trouble. Circulation continues its downward slide. Alternatives proliferate. And social media more and more allows what were formerly faithful readers to talk to one another. And Rosen underscores the cause of his dismay by linking to a pithy cartoon which, he says, illustrates exqusitely what the problem is.

In the cartoon, a husband and wife are in bed with their laptops. In the first frame they voice a lack of regret about the recent demise of the news media. In the second frame, while the husband points at a cute video on his screen that involves a cat kissing a porcupine, his wife glances out the window and says: "Why are there black helicopters hovering over the house?" The subtext? "We warned you," the media is saying. If we're gone, your liberty is at risk.

I think there are two things that should be added to Rosen's post. The first is that while the MSM are foolish to describe bloggers as biased and socially inept loners doing their business is the basement of their mother's house, the fact is that most bloggers do not do original research before writing - unless it is using material that is available online already. I posted a few days ago about a person saying in a comment to a recent online column that journalism is just about aggregating information already available in cyberspace. It's not. And most bloggers only use what is already in cyberspace for their writing. Few actually make calls, find relevant subjects to interview, or venture out for a day or a week to a distant locality in order to gather the material required to write an original story.

So the MSM are overegging the mixture with their characterisation, but the result still tastes something like a cake.

The reason bloggers don't do much original research is that it's hard and costly. I may not be a pimply teenager in mum's basement, but I'm going to baulk at driving 300km and spending a day off work in order to get one interview for a story that might require five. Just finding those other four interview subjects might take weeks. It might take another few weeks to get one of those people on the line so the final interview can go ahead. These are the reasons journalism costs money. Time is money. At the end of the day, the journalist who spent five hours waiting for a contact to call back still has to eat dinner.

The second thing that needs to be said is that not all newspapers have fulfilled their trust with complete honesty. If journalists are resorting to highminded tropes (such as illustrated by the cartoon mentioned above) you'd expect them to always be highminded in their work. The fact is that they're not. There are some newspapers that are known to be sensationalist. Fair charge. There are some newspapers that are known to be biased one way or the other along the political spectrum. Again, fair charge. And as long as these traits are visible to at least some - the more observant reader, for example - then the media's claim to be somehow upholding democracy is going to be compromised and their special plea to the dwindling readership - "Please read me! I'm important!" - will lack volume. It's sort of like the triangle faintly heard amid the din of the brass section during a concert performance: you can hear it, but it's not the main feature.

So Rosen is wrong: journalists do things that are uniquely important. But Rosen is also right: the media have to lift their game or else they will continue to risk being thrown out of the main game.

And just back to the cartoon for a moment. What does it mean? If society becomes so severely polarised that government is no longer possible, does that mean the generals will emerge from their bunkers and ride atop tanks down Main Street? Possibly. There's a risk. But probably not.

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