World Extreme Blogfighting

And now for something completely … uh … yeah.

Or maybe I could do that mixed martial arts bit. Michael Buffer. “It’s tiiiiiime!” Except I don’t have the voice for it. Nor the flair. Nor the bling, now that I stop to think about it. And, frankly, watching members of the journalistic community beat each other bloody is only mildly fun, like making crabs fight in sand pits on the beach without the pervasive sense of guilt.

Let me state at the outset, then, that I like Greenwald. If I walked into a bar and found Glenn Greenwald and Joe Klein arguing, I would probably wonder what someone did to piss off Glenn. And then, of course, someone would whisper, “That’s Joe Klein!”

And I would say, “Well, that explains it.”

More than likely, someone else nearby would say, “Who’s Joe Klein?”

Not that they would know Glenn, either. This aspect of political journalism, while widely-enough attended to keep it going, is actually fairly obscure. Yes, FOX News may be the #1 cable news station, but it’s a cable news station. The top-rated cable news station averages a little under three and a half million viewers daily. An intriguing portion of that is composed of people who despise the network and keep tabs on what insanity its talking heads regularly offer. But some weeks I’ll watch four, maybe six hours of cable news. Some weeks I don’t see it at all. That’s more than most people—perhaps anyone—I know. And I don’t watch FOX.

By the time we get down to a blogbrawl between two generally unrecognizable people like Greenwald and Klein, the audience for such petty spats is relatively small. It is also vocal and very much interested, so we’ll start by accommodating that rabid sector of conservatism that, while it despises “quotas” or any such rules pertaining to those attributes born into a person, requires ideological quota parity before rewarding anyone with the respect of taking them remotely seriously. Or even bothering with the pretense.

So for the benefit of those who do not understand that one can be critical of a Republican, GOP cause, or conservative talking point without fellating Nancy Pelosi, I’ll start with a quota rap against Glenn:

I’m ambivalent about whether even to acknowledge this obviously disturbed, Cheneyite rant from Joe Klein. On the one hand, I don’t want to be dragged down into what is, for him, quite clearly a deeply emotional and personal matter (having its roots in things like this, this and this); I don’t think very many people care about petty feuds and engaging them isn’t the purpose of what I do here. Moreover, Klein’s commenters (as usual) have done a thorough and masterful job of demolishing what he wrote, as have several others. On the other hand, when someone like Klein — first in a secret club composed of several hundred journalists, editors, bloggers and other peers and colleagues, and then using a megaphone like Time — repeatedly calls you a military-hating, unpatriotic, ignorant, Limbaugh-like, “mean-spirited, dishonorable, graceless, bully” who doesn’t care if America Stays Safe, and that then is “reported” in various places, it’s probably prudent to say something. So I’ll just make a couple of general points illustrated by all of this that I think are worth making ….

Glenn, Glenn, Glenn. You’re well aware of the non-denial. This is the dueler’s equivalent. I understand why you’re ambivalent.

Okay, shameful secret time. I do have a certain, laughable weakness. I have in the past and do presently belong to that nefarious subculture known as the internet bulletin board. I know. Really, it just happened by accident. It started shortly after my first exposure to the real internet, as opposed to just workplace networks. And this guy whose guest book I signed spammed me that he was starting a new website, and I checked it out, and one thing led to another ….

Anyway, I had recent cause to celebrate a milestone with that particular community, which was of course occasion to reflect on just how many damn years and words I had spent in that echo chamber. Life goes on. It’s not the fact of the community that is shameful, but rather what it qualifies me to say.

I’ve seen so many of these fights over the years, generally in pettier form. But you can divide your audience into three factions:

  • Glenn’s faction
  • Joe’s faction
  • Everybody else

Generally speaking, Glenn’s faction will not be moved. And whatever jokes I might be inclined to crack about Joe’s faction, neither will they be moved. Everybody else though, speaking generally, doesn’t care. And if those folks take notice, more often than not their only real reaction is to notch down their opinion of both participants. This majority really doesn’t care who is right or wrong; rather, they see the spectacle and dust off their Edwardian reserve—”How undignified!

We know, Glenn. We see. And what you do is important to and appreciated by a good many people. But the blog-duelist’s non-response is still a response. What you do in general—the media watchdog criticism—is enough to make the point. I mean, look at Klein. What, he gives you a reason every other week, doesn’t he?

Just keep busting him. You lose ground as a matter of form. Don’t spend the energy telling us how offensive it is; Klein diminishes himself enough on his own. Like with his Swampland tantrum:

Twice in the past month, my private communications have been splashed about the internet. That such a thing would happen is unfortunate, and dishonorable, but sadly inevitable, I suppose. I ignored the first case, in which a rather pathetic woman acolyte of Greenwald’s published a hyperbolic account of a conversation I had with her at a beach picnic on Cape Cod. Now, Greenwald himself has published private emails of mine that were part of a conversation taking place on a list-serve. In one of those emails, I say that Greenwald “cares not a whit for America’s national security.”

I’d like to quote here from a subsequent email on that thread, which Greenwald hasn’t published, in which I explain why I have such strong feelings about Greenwald:

    For the past several years, Greenwald has conducted a persistent, malicious campaign to distort who I am and where I stand. He is a mean-spirited, graceless bully. During that time, I have never seen him write a positive sentence about the US military, which has transformed itself dramatically for the better since Rumsfeld’s departure (indeed, he ridiculed me when I reported that the situation in Anbar Province was turning around in 2007). I have never seen him acknowledge that the work of the clandestine service—performed disgracefully by the CIA during the early Bush years—is an absolute necessity in a world where terrorists have the capability to attack us at any time, in almost any place. Nor have I seen [him] acknowledge that such a threat exists, nor make a single positive suggestion about how to confront that threat in ways that might conform to his views. Therefore, I have seen no evidence that he cares one whit about the national security of the United States. It is not hyperbole, it is a fact.

Now then, having taken the time to provide a quota of criticism for Glenn Greenwald by telling him what he already knows, thus implicitly telling him to be a better person than others in order to expect the same respect they get, let’s turn to Mr. Klein.

Joe, just stop. Seriously. Shut the fuck up for a minute and think.

In the first place, you’re busted. Okay? The whole thing is bigger than just you, and you clearly forgot that when you posted that truly sad outburst.

So what is it about Glenn that bothers you? That he notices at all? Or the conclusions he asserts as a result of what he notices? Because I can say that I don’t read Joe Klein religiously, but I can also say that from what I’ve read, you’re all over the map. Now, was a time when that could be turned to your favor: if you’re getting heat from both sides—and I know some accuse Joe Klein of a liberal bias, as well—you’re doing okay. But that’s not necessarily true these days. If you’re getting heat from all directions, you might just be wrong.

Imagine it like resolving an image plot. When you have only a few samples, the plot might suggest a variety of outcomes. As more and more results are added to the plot, the image resolves more, restricting the potential diversity of outcomes. If you add a fourth dot, for instance, one might see that you are drawing a square, and not a triangle. Where both existed as potential outcomes, one is no longer included in the set.

The image resolves, ever deeper and more detailed.

In the days when people read a newspaper, listened to the radio, and maybe caught the headlines on television, it was a lot easier to hover in that zone between the arrayed forces and make a point of being criticized by both sides. In the internet era, though, data diversity is up, disagreement is up, and the number of sources is orders of magnitude greater than it used to be. Along the way, people are accruing more and more samples. The image they receive is considerably more detailed than before. And often this is confusing, to be sure; I believe that part of the American malaise of political cynicism that made the Iraq War seem like a good idea has to do with information overload. But information overload does not mean people are wholly insensate.

Greenwald has tacked you to the wall a number of times. One need not be a religious reader of Glenn’s to recognize that as time passes, what was originally observation of themes has become more and more pointed. The picture of our mainstream news media, of which Time is part, is a tragic rendering that suggests our cultural financial priorities have demolished the very reasons journalism is constitutionally protected.

When I was a teenager, newspapers underwent an exponential increase in advertisements. Don’t get me wrong, the page-three girl in the form of a middle-aged woman advertising the ugliest bra and thigh-length control-top underwear was always sufficiently interesting an experience for a fourteen year-old (Please be a juniors sale!) but my father and I had an interesting political relationship, and while he lamented some aspects of what was happening to newspapers in the 1980s, he defended this, pointing out that a quarter doesn’t really cover the cost of a newspaper, and “somebody’s got to pay for it”. It was distracting, sure, to have the A section littered with adverts, but what was the practical alternative?

In the 1990s when I became a regular NPR listener, I recall hearing an interview with a Chicago reporter who claimed to be fired for publishing a story that one of her paper’s big advertisers didn’t like. She says she followed her contract in publishing the story about organic and non-organic milk through another news outlet after her editors rejected it. She upset the local dairy board, apparently. Or so it goes.

What I’m getting at is that you’re dealing with consumers who have long watched their news media decline. This may or may not be exactly statistically true insofar as we can choose any variety of measurements, and some will show positive outcomes. And Stephanie Coontz, author of Marriage: A History pointed in the early pages to an anthropological study that found a current generation of mothers recalling the better state of the family in their own mothers’ times; but it was a follow-up study. That older generation of mothers, when first interviewed, recalled that marriage and family were more secure and stable in their mothers’ times. It could be similar with journalism; yes, people may be looking back to a golden age that never existed, comparing reality against a fourth-estate myth that is, in practice, untenable.

But as with any idyll, why is it untenable? With human institutions, the primary challenge to idealism is systemic. And in this case, it’s true. Somebody has to pay for it. So the big risk is that if Time, or The Washington Post wants to do genuine noble journalism, it can expect to get absolutely buried. I don’t deny that supply and demand is an intricate proposition in the United States, but consider, say, The Daily Show.

In the last few years, The Daily Show has risen to a perverse prominence. We might suggest the catalyst was Jon Stewart’s shakedown of CNN’s Crossfire. Begala might have come off like a blithering twat on that one, but to his credit he knew when he was busted. Carlson just couldn’t cope with the moment. And since then it seems more and more like Stewart and company have this bizarre role to play, a strange obligation in which people are coming to them for real news, and the only thing they can do is try their best while nudging the actual news people and saying, “Um … guys? Uhhh … hey, um, reporter people?”

Just … just think about it for a minute. I mean, we’ve all heard stats about how the younger generations especially are looking more and more to The Daily Show and The Colbert Report to explain to them what the hell is going on in the world. And yes, that should be unsettling to the reporter guys. Because what we are getting right now from the “respectable” and “proper” news outlets is a Daily Show “joke”.

Look, I don’t read Time very much. Its reporting is vapid. As an information source, it is utterly useless to me save for the occasional morbid post about pornography and … oh, hey, I use their “Quotes of the Day” widget on my blog, but they’re not actually that good. Today it’s Deval Patrick moaning about having to appoint a replacement for the late Sen. Kennedy.

I mean, really.

Do you understand what is happening, sir? Consumers are blown hither and yon by accusations of political bias that, strangely, run counter to observable fact, while the real phenomenon is not so much about politics as it is about money. If news is just a product, like a Pokemon, or an adult toy, or a Twinkie, why are we protecting the press?

Whether it’s the Lewin Group or FOX News, people are already aware that the information conveyed to them intended as fact is often suspect. We expect something from our journalistic institutions that can’t be measured in a ledger, Mr. Klein. We expect the press to help us recognize and understand what is going on in the world around us, and that is about the last thing you actually do.

And yes, after a while, patterns emerge. What do you expect? You leave enough tracks, someone will eventually follow.

If Greenwald is trying to distort who you are, that is according to your expectation of what he should see. Time and again Greenwald and plenty of others have called out you and a broad spectrum of your colleagues, from Time and Newsweek to all the broadcast and cable news networks; Jim Lehrer is part of the Daily Show joke, albeit after the fact. Even NPR, that fuzzy and beloved alleged bastion of liberalism in the United States, faces this heat.

You know, I kind of lectured Glenn on the indignity of this sort of internet feud. And I need to make a point to you, as well. In my years dodging about in the seedy underworld of internet bulletin boards, one phrase that comes in worryingly, exceptionally handy is to wonder why someone can’t tell the difference. In the stunted and simplistic world of flame wars and legendary trolls, a curious blurring effect occurs. Let’s say you catch someone lying. Repeatedly. So you call him out. Well, nobody likes to be called a liar. It’s insulting. And in the two-dimensional, thought-retardant world of virtual communities, the common exchange is as basic as can be. Just say what ever he wants. Might call you a faggot or a hatemonger or a fascist. If you really irk him, you’ll be a Nazi before sundown. What doesn’t necessarily factor into the response is the fact that yes, he lied.

In other words, it might not feel good to be called a liar, but if he lies …?

I don’t even want to try to imagine the strangeness of complaints, threats, and annoyances reporters have received over the years, speak nothing of the email age. But sometimes, amid the storm and fury, someone might actually be making a point. I know it gets old being told you’re completely screwing up your job. But this isn’t just about you. The entire journalism industry is in shakedown right now, and it really does seem to those of us watching as if nobody in the business has a clue what the real problem is. It’s easy enough to appreciate, say, a spectacle like Planet Earth, the BBC miniseries narrated by David Attenborough (and Sigourney Weaver for the U.S. broadcast). And it’s even fairly simple to see the charm in something relatively low budget, like The Mark Steel Lectures, which could never be shown on broadcast television in the United States. But even more bizarre, I found myself listening the other night to this curious British music program called My Music. It’s a strange, slightly stuffy game show of sorts involving a panel of minor musical celebrities guessing songs and telling old stories. Bizarre, but better than most American radio programming.

In this country, we have Says You! and Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!, Radio Lab and This American Life, but only one of those has ever been big enough to have a real pop culture shot, and that through Showtime. It’s more accurate to say there is plenty of good radio, but media resources are devoted to pushing other flashy projects. Consumers get plenty of bells and whistles; Election Night coverage is getting fun just to see what sort of interactive glitz the cable networks come up with. Who knows? Someday it could be like watching the Super Bowl for the damn commercials.

But we don’t get that kind of effort for content. I mean, really. Game shows? Quirky human interest magazine shows? These programs remind that bringing good content isn’t difficult, it just isn’t safe. The primary indictment against the business model of the news industry seems to be that actual information is necessarily a secondary consideration. These are businesses, after all, and somebody has to pay for it.

In trying to economize, optimize, and maximize, one effect is the reduced vigilance by which, as Rob Corddry puts it, “Listen buddy: not my job to stand between the people talking to me and the people listening to me.” Or, as Jim Lehrer explains:

My part of journalism is to present what various people say about it the best we can find out [by] reporting and let others — meaning commentators, readers, viewers, bloggers or whatever … I’m not in the judgment part of journalism. I’m in the reporting part of journalism.

I’m not sure it’s significant, but did you notice that analysts are absent from Lehrer’s formula?

People are turning to comedy programming in order to figure out what the world is up to. You can learn more in two hours of public radio game shows or digest magazines than in a week of following, and even studying the news.

American voters. How many of them really read that Voter’s Guide that comes in the mail before an election? Oh, plenty, you would think. But, still, a significant number don’t.

I sometimes make the joke—based on the rhetoric of the vociferous Christian right—that American Christians don’t actually know what’s in the Bible.

Neither of those points, though, mean Americans are stupid. It suggests they’re distracted. You’ve seen the reports, too. Americans work more and harder than their industrialized counterparts. They take fewer vacations. Our economy is fraught with tension right now. We’re a very smart people but also very specialized, and one of the problems this non-analytical, recital journalism is that one cannot presume the audience has the requisite background to make that analysis. You’re not supposed to judge good and evil, sure—except maybe when that’s the actual headline—but a bullshit detector used to be standard-issue among the fourth estate. Given how much people have on their minds, how many of them really are going to find the time to chase down every suspect provision in the legislation, or read the original eight hundred page study? Of the people I know who complain about liberal judicial activism—well, there are few enough of them to begin with—very few have actually read any Supreme Court decision, much less the one they’re complaining about. People’s needs outstrip their understandings of their own capabilities. One can always argue that Americans can do a better job following news and politics, but that doesn’t even pretend to span the gap. They need people to translate and compress information for them, and they need it done right.

And the result, not just of your efforts but those of many of your colleagues, lends to certain appearances. And people are calling it by name. And, yes, I recognize that some of those names are discouraging if not downright insulting, but what if—what if—those descriptions are accurate?

“There’s always a germ of truth in everything,” said Jim Lehrer in that 2006 interview.

So what is that germ, Mr. Klein? And is it only but a germ?

And yet you offer us what? A fallacy? You “have seen no evidence that he cares one whit about the national security of the United States”?

Okay, man, I understand the notion of taking the piss, but that sort of stupid shit doesn’t even fly in the burned out intellectual shell of internet bulletin boards.

I mean, come on. The cornerstone is fallacious, the criteria suspect, and the conclusion foregone. As you don’t read Greenwald religiously, words like “never” are risky. Even setting that aside, though, you’re demanding a quota. You’re demanding equal time. You’re demanding that Glenn do other people’s work for them.

Oh, and the whole thing about privacy? That’s bulletin-board fodder, too. And if that’s what serves your needs, that’s fine. That’s your business.

But you work for Time.

Sure, I don’t read it much, but I’m not oblivious. It’s bloody Time. I’m pretty sure that used to mean something.

And, yes, there is a case-in-point aspect to be found there, too.

Don’t wonder why the established, traditional media is failing. It’s getting too hard to tell it apart from the paparazzi, blogosphere, and in some cases, internet bulletin boards.


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