Friday, April 28, 2006


Existential Friday: Enjoy it while it lasts

Save the Freakin' Internet!!!

As part of my ongoing life as a rock star, I was one of six panelists for a panel in a University Journalism School on Blogging and Journalist Ethics.

Candidly, I'm more of an obscure opening act than a rock star, since the J-school's first choice was the splendid and brilliant Ann Althouse, but she was unavailable. So I flew into town from Wherever It Is That I Live to participate in the panel.

The first thing I noticed as the panelists took their seats was that we were six white guys between thirty and fifty. Six married white guys. From my seat on one end of the dias, I looked to my right and caught an excellent "I wish had my camera" visual of five left hands resting in a neat row on the table, each sporting a wedding ring. From now on, if the topic is blog-related, I'm just going to take the damn photo and say "it's for my blog!"

The second thing I noticed was that the other five panelists were all professional print or broadcast journalists who seemed to believe that there are only two kinds of blogs: those that function as news clipping services -- essentially filtering and linking to useful news items that may not make the final edition of their paper or news show -- and those for people who want to post pictures of their babies.

I was dumbstruck, and kept thinking "man, if Althouse were here, she'd be ripping these guys a new one!"

It turns out that the topic, of which the student organizers informed me in only the vaguest terms, was not really blogging per se. Rather it was whether this particular incident -- the LA Times' decision to cancel the blog of a columnist who had posted anonymous comments on the blogosphere -- was an appropriate application of "journalist ethics."

I know very little about journalist ethics, and my only information about the LA Times incident was a printout of an online New York Times story of the incident handed out at the panel. But the story was so poorly written that I had only a foggy idea of what bad thing this guy supposedly did. And as the only non-journalist in the whole damned room, and the author of "the wrong kind of blog," I was beginning to feel like I was in that Monty Python episode:
And on my right - putting the case [from the law professor perspective] - is a small patch of brown liquid which could be creosote or some extract used in industrial varnishing[.]
Luckily for me, everyone digressed shamelessly as the frustrated moderator -- a charming and intelligent J-school professor -- desperately tried to refocus us on the LA Times/ethics topic.

The problem is that it's hard to focus on such a narrow, fussy topic when the surrounding context is so huge and problematic. The elephant in the room was for me the very interesting and troubling implications of having mainstream media crash the blogosphere.

I was neither eloquent nor particularly coherent, since the real point only slowly dawned on me, but what I stumbled and stammered to get out was that the LA Times act of self restraint is merely an insignificant trickle running against a predictable flood. The blogosphere has its own norms and ethics, growing out of the chaotic, democratic nature of the internet. And while the journalists pompously trumpeted their supplemental-news-outlet blogs as "the true blogs," the fact remains that they are largely advance men for corporate MSM who are staring into a future in which the public increasingly reads its news on line rather than on paper. And these media moguls are in a bit of a panic, because on-line information is right now very decentralized, and largely not-for-profit, in comparison to traditional print and broadcast media.

What are blogs? The question was poorly answered by my panel, but I would say blogs are published daily expression. MSM figures, hey we're professionals at this, what's with all the amateurs? Don't you think that if they could figure out a way to wrest control over the internet, to make it like the rest of the publishing and broadcasting world, they'd do it in a heartbeat? (I said this at the panel.)

And in fact they are doing this. If and when the corporations who own the cables succeed in their current plan of gaining control over the internet itself, who do you think it is that will pay the access fees to get favored access to web surfers? You? Me? Or the LA Times, etc.?

So the LA Times tiny act of deploying journalistic ethics to restrain its web presence impresses me very little, and to devote a panel to it is like debating whether the people on the Titanic should or should not have said "excuse me" while elbowing their way to the life boats.

That's at best -- at worst, the LA Times little ethical snit is an indirect attack on "the wrong kind of blogs" as unethical and unreliable. That sort of professionalization could neatly serve the interests of media centralization. But no one on the panel acknowledged that point.

If there's a real journalism "ethics" issue here, it's the conflict of interest of mainstream journalists entering the web. Their credibility and First Amendment privilege is based on their contribution to a democratic society, but they enter the web as front men for businesses that want to reign in the web's democratic character. (One of the panelists kept talking about the "need" for bloggers to get "libel insurance," as if he wanted to scare us off.)

The last thing I noticed is how the audience of mostly (though not all) college students was strikingly naive about the future of the internet. They just assume things will stay the way the are now -- they seemed untoubled and oblivious to the spectre of corporate penetration of the blogosphere.

Perhaps ironically, it's a lack of historical consciousness that makes people unable to think seriously about the high tech future. I don't mean that young people are oblivious because they don't know that the Treaty of Paris formally ending the American Revolution wasn't signed until 1783, two years after Yorktown. Though, frankly, a broad appreciation of the history of the closing of the American frontier provides at least some pertinent analogies.

What I mean is that people are surprisingly oblivious to the fact that the present is always just a snapshot in an evolutionary process.

We have lots of historical examples of markets with low-density regulation and relatively or (temporarily lowered) entry costs -- essentially what the internet is now. And whether your parallel example is land in 19th century America or industries following deregulation, what you almost invariably see is a strong trend toward centralization after a more chaotic, competitive phase.

The democratic, chaotic, practically-free internet has been a beautiful thing. But panels about blogging, it seems to me, have to be talking about how that internet is in peril. Fight for it -- or enjoy it while it lasts.


MInd meld!

Tom Bozzo wrote about this last Saturday. I was inspired me to write a post about it, too. Let's fight, and continue to enjoy it while it lasts. Nothing lasts forever.
FYI, there's also a local (to Wisconsin) initiative, the Wisconsin Coalition for Net Neutrality, just getting off the ground with a politically diverse group of contributors.
Flew into town? You can start showing us photos of yourself now that we know who you are.
Anon: I warmly welcome comments, but please read my comments policy (link in the sidebar). As you can imagine, it's kind of creepy, in a Big Brother surveillance sort of way, to have an anonymous commenter saying "we know who you are."
Allow myself to introduce, umm, myself. I've never met or seen you before this panel, and I've only read your blog as a direct result of the panel. Oh, and I'm going to be happily pseudonymous...

Anyway, for better or worse, you were not the only non-journalist in the room. However, you were certainly the most vocal, and certainly not incoherent. Your points were not lost on the ears of us non-journalists (I can say that because I think I was the only other one). It was quite apparent from questions to the panelists that you are right, many in the audience are ignorant of the state of the Internet. This is a big problem. It's very much like a lack of understanding of daily tools. Surely, you can live your life without knowing how stuff works, but you can much better apply tools when you understand them. The Internet is not the same old medium/tool as print, and understanding the differences could go a long way to helping journalistic media survive. Certainly Mudroch has an understanding of it's social aspects. Though, maybe it would be better if he didn't.

I would have liked it if more of the discussion drew a parallel with the talking heads on TV or radio spots. They seem like a natural analog to the type of blogs being discussed, and might have helped in making the ethics of blogging/journalism more apparent. Though, maybe all journalists gain an implicit understanding of those ethics through their education...and everyone else knew what was going on.

One thing that I definitely took away from the panel was it's dynamic. You happened to be as far as possible from the exclusive-club-grasping news-clipping journalist/blogger. I was wondering if you would have seemed even more frustrated if he were next to you. I hope people heard the seasoned-veteran journalist in the middle when he said the party is over -- though, maybe you can only admit such a thing once you've enjoyed the good times.

Btw, I'm glad you were on the panel. An outside view is always nice. Maybe someone will have a little light-bulb moment and realize that blogs can be/are more than an extension of their current way of viewing the world.
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