June 21, 2002
L.A. Times Media Columnist ...
L.A. Times Media Columnist Slams Kaus, Blogging!: The other day, Mickey Kaus drew a parallel between blogging and the Washington Post's drip-a-day Watergate coverage, taking a swipe along the way at the L.A. Times:
This is indeed something the Post's editor Ben Bradlee instinctively understood -- you keep the story going, with hit after little hit, which gets people talking, which panics sources into coming forward, which gets other papers into the hunt and ultimately brings much more information to light, even if this means you occasionally get something wrong ... This virtue of Bradlee's editorship, it seems to me, is also a virtue of blogging as a form of journalism. The Web really does put a premium on speed and spontaneity over painstaking acccuracy. Bloggers instantly print want they learn, and what they believe to be true. They sometimes -- often, actually -- get it wrong. But even those errors prompt swift corrections that take the story asymptotically closer to the truth. In the meantime, other bloggers and other sources are activated, which advances the story further, quicker. ... The way to not quickly get at the truth is to follow the unbloggish motto of the L.A. Times' editor of several decades ago: "Do It Once, Do It Right, And Do It Long." That philosophy was why the LAT of that era blew its coverage of scandal after juicy scandal. They waited to "do it once." Sources didn't come forward -- and by the time they finally did it once, nobody cared. ... The urge to "Do It Once, Do It Right" is also why Bradlee's duller successors at WaPo blew the Paula Jones/Clinton/sex story. ... [Are you arguing for a relaxation of libel laws as applied to blogs, to let them make more errors?—ed. Good question. "Reckless disregard" is a pretty loose standard already. I do think the Web changes the social calculus behind libel standards, but mainly because Web errors are corrected so quickly and relatively effectively -- the truth now gets its boots on and catches up with a lie halfway around the world, making errors much less dangerous, meaning we don't need as much of a social deterrent against them.. (Take it away Eugene Volokh!)]
Italics & bolds original. Kaus' post, which echoes one of the main beefs against the Times (that they prefer gigantic, untimely stories or series to actually covering a beat day after day), drew this snippy response
under the sub-hed "The Truth About Blogging" by Tim Rutten, an L.A. Times staffer who writes the "Regarding Media" column for the stepchild Southern California Living section:
Now, just to demonstrate that folly is constant from medium to medium, consider another of this week's examples -- the blogger Mickey Kaus.
Bloggers, in case you have been spending the irreplaceable moments of your one and only life reading serious newspapers and good books, are people who maintain Internet logs of their personal analysis and reflections. It's sort of old wine in new skins, since the bloggers are basically a narcissistic throwback to an easily recognizable American type, the 19th century cranks who turned out mountains of self-published pamphlets.
The cranks had all sorts of idiosyncratic preoccupations -- single tax schemes, silver-backed currency, vegetarianism and the metaphysical benefits of healthy bowels, for example. Bloggers tend to dabble in politics, media and vendetta.
Wednesday, for instance, Kaus posted an item on his personal site (www.kausfiles.com) praising former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee for allowing reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein to publish their articles on Watergate at a rapid pace, even though that "sometimes meant revealing unsubstantiated or simply wrong information."
According to Kaus, "Bradlee instinctively understood -- you keep the story going, with hit after little hit, which gets people talking, which panics sources into coming forward, which gets other papers into the hunt and ultimately brings much more information to light, even if this means you occasionally get something wrong....This virtue of Bradlee's editorship, it seems to me, is also a virtue of blogging as a form of journalism. The Web really does put a premium on speed and spontaneity over painstaking accuracy. Bloggers instantly print what they learn, and what they believe to be true. They sometimes -- often, actually -- get it wrong. But even those errors prompt swift corrections that take the story asymptotically closer to the truth."
For those who cut that particular math class, "asymptotically" is the adverbial form of the noun "asymptote," which is what you call a straight line that always approaches but never actually meets a curve. In other words, bloggers' frequent errors of fact are inconsequential, since they push a story toward the truth, though it never quite gets there, which apparently doesn't matter.
Kaus argues the superiority of this approach to that of "the L.A. Times editor of several decades ago" whose "unbloggish motto" was "Do It Once, Do It Right, And Do It Long."
At the risk of committing "painstaking accuracy," the editor was Bill Thomas, who served until 1989. He was a veteran journalist with a well-founded skepticism of self-interested newspaper crusades. He had traditional notions about the facts, which led him to abhor mistakes and to esteem fairness and balance. His motto was "Do it once. Do it right." He certainly would have recognized an asymptotic approach to the truth for what it is -- an excuse and a scam.
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Posted by at June 21, 2002 03:23 PM
I know you bloggers must get annoyed by all the attacks from traditional media types, but take it from a mere reader: the anti-blogging backlash is the desperation of an obsolete guild. (Not that the traditional media are obsolete, mind you--as you and others have pointed out, the blogosphere requires them. What's obsolete is the guild: the hierarchy, the exclusivity, the professionalism-in-the-pejorative-sense.)
I stopped watched network news for anything but presidential elections over a decade ago. I watch cable news for breaking news only.
I subscribe to the New Yorker, TNR (come on, Matt, the Economist?!), and the NY Times....but I've been reading less and less of the Times. I think I'm going to let my subscription drop, despite the cheap academic price they give me. I'm just fed up with their unacknowledged editorializing on ostensibly news pieces. For a similar reason I stopped listening to NPR: just sick of its faux journalistic objectivity, which is largely "If we have someone saying P, we have to find someone else who says not-P." That's silly enough on its own, but intolerable in combination with the perfectly obvious fact that they do have a take -- even an ideology -- on many issues. For the NYT, most obviously: welfare reform (bad) and affirmative action (good). Just admit it, already, for crissake!
As for getting the facts right, I'm tempted just to say: well you can't beat the Guardian -- but that would be a cheap shot, wouldn't it? Instead, I'll put it this way: I'd rather read Kaus, Reynolds, Sullivan, den Beste, and Volokh (for instance, excluding you and your psychotic novelist pal just to avoid seeming sycophantic) than any newspaper I've seen yet.
In fact, that's what I do now, more and more. The only problem is you can't take the computer to the Korean joint down the street, not to mention when you're brushing your teeth or doing even more unmentionable things.
I can only say one thing, some of my blogging is intwined with my oodles of reseach which has been paid for. Say what they will, blogging is one of the first spots these news papers and news channel researches look, specially on slow days, believe me! :-)
One of the reasons why this exchange is funny is that Kaus -- who has been a well known and respected *print journalist* for years and years -- is presented as merely a "blogger." Echoing what my psychotic novelist pal said the other day, I shudder to conceive of myself primarily as a "blogger," and I think the whole half-phony distinction will seem dated by the end of this summer, if not sooner. That doesn't mean it isn't funny to watch someone throw a hissy fit....
So was that whole riff on the strict definition of "asymptotically" really meant to imply that the Times publishes 100% perfect truth?
Wow. And they have comics, too.
Some of the online content at magazines like TNR actually comes up short against the *best* blogging on an individual topic. This week's TNR has an unenlightening piece written by someone named Cottle about Nickelodeon's special program featuring alternatively-arranged families, and another perfectly unremarkable piece by a guy who tells us about how he watches the World Cup on his honeymoon in Italy.
The best blogging on the World Cup has been a good deal better, and even some of the discussion of gay rights/marriage/adoption has been more impressive on blogs than the TNR's attempt. And there are movie reviews better than Stanley Kauffmann's, and more imaginative/less predictable articles on Indo-Pak nukes and Alaska oil-drilling than the commentary TNR had to offer. It's that 'guild' thing, mentioned above, that promotes handsomely capitalized media companies over superior content.
But if you want researched, pavement-hitting items on what really goes on in D.C., TNR is better than any newspaper, however 'blog-like' the newspaper may happen to be. Check out TNR's article on the guy the Bushies allowed to become ambassador to Taiwan. I just don't see how "blog-like" or "bloggish" is a compliment by itself.
Things could be worse: Mr. Rutten could be the LAT's science writer.
Had a good sick laugh over this LAT column. You all made the big points already, but here are a few other amusing parts:
This LAT guy not only dismisses author/editor/former East Coast print journalist Kaus as a "blogger," but intentionally leaves out the fact that Kaus is a reporter for Slate (the LAT ran a big obit & photo of Slate reporter Scott Shuger on Thursday). The column provides the old URL (kausfiles.com) that is simply a redirect to MSN's Slate, the better to make Kaus seem like some unemployed crank.
This guy's "gotcha" is to include the date the former LAT editor left the paper, 1989. This is somehow supposed to contradict Kaus' line about an editor of "several decades ago." It's 2002. The editor left in 1989. From a 1999 article in the UCLA Daily Bruin:
"Bill Thomas, 75, was the Metro editor for the L.A. Times and later Times editor from 1962-1989. During the 29 years Thomas served at the Times, he said he saw Hillinger as a reporter with great strength in providing an unique quality to his stories."
Hmm. What part of "several decades ago" contradicts "1962-1989"?
"Do it once, do it right" is one of the oldest business cliches in the English language. Google finds 655 examples, everywhere from professional moving company sites to cast-iron manufacturing pages. Claiming that phrase as Thomas' motto is like me claiming "Baseball is America's pasttime" as my motto. Nonetheless, Thomas said it enough that it became a joke in California newsrooms of the day. Except we used the version Kaus surely knew from his days at the LA Herald-Examiner: Do it once, do it right, do it long. It's *sarcasm* ... sarcasm based on the reality of the LAT's slow-witted, long-winded response to breaking news.
Sarcasm, of course, is not welcome on the LAT's pages -- unless David Shaw is writing a 72-part series on corporate media's GOP-backed attempts to use sarcasm to attack NPR or something.
This LAT columnist, without irony, uses the phrase "fairness and balance" to describe the pure blessed journalism of his paper. Has he been slumming at FoxNews?
It's also revealing to see this guy's view of the history of American political thought:
"It's sort of old wine in new skins, since the bloggers are basically a narcissistic throwback to an easily recognizable American type, the 19th century cranks who turned out mountains of self-published pamphlets."
I read that snarky sentence to my wife, who is not a journalist or media person, and asked what she thought of when she heard about the easily recognizable American type who published pamphlets. She answered Tom Paine, Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, as those cranks' pamphlets are required reading in grade school.
The only thing surprising about this jackass is that he had no problem attacking someone *for defending Ben Bradlee.* Wow. Even the most famous and admired U.S. newspaper editor of our era can't get a break if he's praised by a lowly blogger, eh?
Finally, this guy writes a column in a section of the paper that has already been given its death sentence. As John Carroll recently told anyone who would listen, SoCal Living is finished. Will "media columnist" Tim Rutten be reduced to writing a blog? Will it be about his bowel movements? We can dream.
I have a feeling that a part of LAT's snarkiness toward bloggers is the rather well publicized participation of two well-known specimens of the art in a project aimed directly at their jugular.
I like to read Nature and Science magazines. Blog headlines/short notes will never compare to those.
So if blogs can substitute for the New York Times some day, that tells a lot about the New York Times.
btw. I hate to hold the New York Times. It's not the right paper, it's not the right size.
More for the "Do it once. Do it right."
The definition of "asymptote" as stated in the excerpt is wrong. The terms "line" and "curve" are reversed. An aymptote is not a line, it is a curve which is very nearly straight, but not quite.
The tempest between journalists who do not blog (JWDNBs) and Journalists who blog (JWBs) might be only slightly less earthshaking than that between Swift's Big Endians and Little Endians.
Tom -- In fact, it's mostly a conflict that doesn't exist, in my opinion; if anything, there's a long-standing conflict of values & comportment between journalists who work at prestigious dailies (or even the standard local monopolist daily), and those, like me, who do not.
In three months, one hopes, the word "blogger" will sound as out-dated as the prefix "cyber," and this whole conversation will sound like jibber-jabber.
Looks like you were spot on when you said back in June:
"In three months, one hopes, the word 'blogger' will sound as out-dated as the prefix 'cyber,' and this whole conversation will sound like jibber-jabber."
Yep, three months later, the LAT weighs in with its "coverage" of LA bloggers. Looks like we can finally bury the stupid word!