The Square Circuit

Academia, parenthood, living in a bankrupt city, and what I read in the process.

Monday, November 03, 2008

blogs and journalism

I've not been blogging at all because, first, I've been swamped at work, and second, because I've been so deeply immersed in "real" blogs because of the election that I've just decided that I can't compete. Kos, Talking Points Memo, the Atlantic and American Prospect blogs, they are just magnificent.

But I've also just started to watch the final season of THE WIRE on DVD. Although a plot summary is probably too much to bother to provide, one of the central themes of the season is the decline of the newspaper industry, largely as a result of the consolidation of ownership of newspapers. Large companies such as Gannett, the Times company, and (particularly) the Tribune company own numerous papers and many of these companies are publicly owned, thus putting pressure on management to increase stock prices, which in turn requires constantly increasing earnings. As many people have pointed out, this tends to manifest itself in severe cutbacks in staff and the closure of bureaus. All old news.

David Simon, the creator of THE WIRE, was a reporter for the Baltimore SUN for many years, covering the crime beat, and his anger at the corporate management of the newspaper is so dominant in this strain of the story that it begins to grate. A corporate suit managing editor, clearly pressured to 1) win prizes and 2) cut costs, pushes a simplistic series of stories aimed at snatching an easy Pulitzer. Our hero city editor (played by Clark Johnson, who created Meldrick Lewis of HOMICIDE, one of my favorite TV characters ever) resists this, telling the suit that these simplistic stories are, well, oversimplified. Caught between them is a young reporter, eager but a bit lazy in terms of doing the actual legwork of reporting--in the first three episodes he appears to have actually made up parts of stories, Jayson Blair-like. But the suit loves the eager young reporter, whose easy stories and pithy quotes (Simon clearly feels) capture the new ethos of the corporate press: emotional, easily digestible, and banal. The new guy refers to a graybeard as "deadwood" as the managing editor cuts staff, and then gets shown up by this graybeard.

Okay, so that's not the point. The City Editor obviously represents all that is good and pure and lovable about journalism; he even jokes about H.L. Mencken. But what I find striking about his character is his absolute devotion to accuracy. In one scene, he corrects a reporter's use of the verb "evacuate;" in another, he asks very perceptive, pressing questions of our eager beaver that quickly call into doubt the accuracy of the story; in a third, he shows how he has cultivated reporters who have a deep knowledge of all of the tiny details of the lives and careers of even minor players in city and police politics. He's journalism at its best. The corporate suit is a corporate suit, and the eager beaver is a quick learner, immediately seeing how the lax standards of his paper are an advantage to him.

What this made me think about was the purpose of journalism versus the purpose of blogs. In the latest issue of THE ATLANTIC, Andrew Sullivan--a writer whom I don't particularly like, and not only for his former water-carrying for the conservative movement that would like to see him put into a sexual-orientation-reeducation camp--writes about why he blogs, and he celebrates the immediacy of blogs. But as I watch Simon's character of Augustus Haynes (the city editor), for all that I realize that he is an utterly idealized version of journalism as an absolutely crucial part of a democracy, I ask what we will lose when this model of subsidized fact-checking is lost. I love the work that TPM did with the attorney-firings scandal, and blogs have certainly broken tons of stories ('macaca,' 'cling to religion and guns')that probably would have gone unreported. But blogs are an even more immediate version of TV news, and I'm sure we all have experiences of watching the TV news, especially during a very intense breaking story, just get so much wrong in its desperation to get every fact/rumor/speculation on the air instantaneously. There's a place for everything; I'm just very concerned that the role of the newspaper (waiting a few hours, even, to check on facts and let a story develop) will disappear as newspapers, with their enforced wait times, turn into journalism on the web, which can fall prey to the temptation to get every "fact" (no matter how specious) online as soon as possible.


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