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NY Times: your experiment with blogging has failed

When blogging first erupted into the World’s Wild Web, practitioners declared a revolution in media affairs: bloggers would bring journalism to the people. No longer would MainStream Media hold magical sway over our minds, because (1) MSM had been revealed to be biased and unfair, and (2) journalists’ “professionalism” actually stands in the way of honest reporting. Utopians declared the end of journalism as we know it, and a string of blog scoops — especially the one that toppled Dan Rather — seemed to secure that victory. Reeling, MSM struck back by converting its journalists into amateur bloggers.

When you parse the concept of “amateur blogger,” you begin to see the outline of the problem that the MSM would be courting.

Today’s column by Paul Krugman, which calls Obama supporters “dangerously close to becoming a cult of personality” without citing to any evidence, casts a spotlight on the dangers awaiting respectable newspapers that decided to play in the muck. If a national election weren’t at stake, the sight of respectable writers confronted with the gale-force emotions that wrack the blogosphere would almost be amusing. Witness Stanley Fish amatuerishly treating Hillary-haters posting to his earlier (amateur) blog post about Clinton-bashing as if they were rational thinkers deserving of a response. (Presumably, Krugman drew his conclusions from the same sources, but if so, he lacked the courage to admit it). Those of us who’d lived through the early days of blogging, of discussion boards, of Usenet have terms for what these two otherwise respectable, but in-over-their-heads, writers were engaged in: flamebaiting and feeding the trolls.

The fact that Krugman wrote a column while Fish wrote a “blog post” is irrelevant. Both can appear on the New York Times’ “Most emailed” list (both did, in fact). And ever since the abolition of Times Select made opinion pieces open to all, such articles have, needlessly, dominated the list.

It’s time to end the sham distinction between journalism and blogging. More appropriate lines should be drawn among reporting, analysis, and opinion-shaping. And it’s pretty clear that, if they are to keep their souls, professional journalism needs to repudiate its improperly inherited role in this last category.

Let me be blunt here: if they are to survive as America’s Fourth Estate, newspapers must fire their columnists — liberal and conservative, pro-Obama and pro-McCain, pro-vegetarian and pro-SUV — all of them. Their roles are adequately filled by bloggers. In fact, most MSM columnists’ skills of shaping opinion through biased fact selection and unsubstantiated innuendo pale in comparison with Drudge, Huffington, and their ilk. Cut them loose from the journalistic equivalent of welfare and let them compete in that unfettered marketplace of fetid opinion.

MSM also needs to learn from the very deep experience of its cyber-predecessors when it comes to keeping the communities around its content civil. Showing up at an official New York Times page — whether labeled “blog” or not — and seeing readers viciously maul each other using cheap rhetorical tricks not only degrades the NYTimes brand, but erodes our belief in Truth.

And I believe Truth still matters, even in these murky days of postmodern self-awareness. That most Web2.0 of websites, Wikipedia, makes Truth the cornerstone of its existence. Global Voices shows the value of local blogging all across the world. Closer to home, Off the Bus project shows that promise in letting fact-minded political bloggers report from the ground, although a stronger editorial hand in weeding out the puff pieces, as well as disassociating with the unabashedly pro-Obama Huffington Post, would help significantly. (Full disclosure: both projects are run by current or former colleagues of mine at the Berkman Center).

Journalistic integrity — whether practiced by professionals or amateurs — underlie our ability to make decisions in a democracy. If newspapers are islands of truth in a sea of raucous opinion, they can’t afford to turn up the heat without being washed away by a rising tide of cacophony.

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