Of journalism’s checks and balances

Rather than dismissing Joseph Rago’s rant The Blog Mob, “Written by fools to be read by imbeciles”, I think we ought to pay close attention to what he says. Rago is an assistant editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal and a writer who likes to use big words (a sesquipedalian, eh?). When I first read of his commentary, I was incensed that such a man would resort to name-calling in ranting against bloggers, but I’ve come away with a very different opinion after reading his piece.

This is why we should always follow the links, but that’s another essay.

I don’t doubt there is condescension in his opinion piece, but his reference is mostly to political blogs, and I’m quite in agreement with him that many of these tend to noise.

The blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared curators would like to think. Journalism requires journalists, who are at least fitfully confronting the digital age. The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage. Instead, they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps.

He’s right in that there exists in the blogosphere no serious criticism of the blogosphere, at least not that I’ve been able to discover. This in and of itself ought to give us pause. I think his broadbrush treatment of bloggers, however, is idiotic and self-serving and evidence of his own pronouncements for political blogs — that because this type of writing is predictable, it is “excruciatingly boring.”

I also don’t care for his belief that “journalism requires journalists,” for it suggests that only the educated élite qualify for such a title.

But there’s more, and this is why I think it’s so important to “hear” what Rago is saying:

Certainly the MSM, such as it is, collapsed itself. It was once utterly dominant yet made itself vulnerable by playing on its reputed accuracy and disinterest to pursue adversarial agendas. Still, as far from perfect as that system was, it was and is not wholly imperfect. The technology of ink on paper is highly advanced, and has over centuries accumulated a major institutional culture that screens editorially for originality, expertise and seriousness.

Of course, once a technosocial force like the blog is loosed on the world, it does not go away because some find it undesirable. So grieving over the lost establishment is pointless, and kind of sad. But democracy does not work well, so to speak, without checks and balances. And in acceding so easily to the imperatives of the Internet, we’ve allowed decay to pass for progress.

I concur that without checks and balances, we are certainly passing a form of decay off as progress, but any serious blogger knows that his or her audience provides a kind of check and balance that institutional journalism doesn’t know. Take a look, for instance, at the comment by Tom Tucker on my entry below about illegally sold DVDs in Amman. This is my editor, if you will, and I can understand why Rago would be concerned about this with political writers, because they may be more inclined to dismiss criticism that I am.

Like any of its modern equivalents, postmodern institutions will have to also find balance between opposing views, but this will be increasingly the role of an informed citizenry and not that of the few who work for the institutional press. By increasingly rejecting the mainstream media (through viewership and reader declines), this check and balance system is already underway.

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