Interacting with the traditional media

by lex,

Posted on January 21, 2006


The Radioblogger has an interview up between Hugh Hewitt and the Washington Post blog editor Jim Brady. Most of the top half of the article deals with the “meltdown” by some readers of the perpetually aggrieved set to the words of WaPoblog ombudsman Deborah Howell.

Howell’s crime this time (like the last time – she has sinned before) was to tell people something that they didn’t want to hear:

I’ve heard from lots of angry readers about the remark in my column Sunday that lobbyist Jack Abramoff gave money to both parties. A better way to have said it would be that Abramoff “directed” contributions to both parties.

Lobbyists, seeking influence in Congress, often advise clients on campaign contributions. While Abramoff, a Republican, gave personal contributions only to Republicans, he directed his Indian tribal clients to make millions of dollars in campaign contributions to members of Congress from both parties.

Records from the Federal Elections Commission and the Center for Public Integrity show that Abramoff’s Indian clients contributed between 1999 and 2004 to 195 Republicans and 88 Democrats.

In consequence of which she was excoriated.

(W)e’ve been clear about that, that we’re not going to tolerate anybody being called these names, whether they’re employees of the Washington Post or other commentors. And this was more directed at Deborah than it was at other commentors. But that was certainly part of the equation, and it’s just…you know, as I said in the discussion, if you can’t make your point without calling people some of the names they were being called, then you don’t have a point in my opinion.

She made two mistakes here: In her earlier post, she was, as she later admitted, linguistically imprecise. In her correction she noted that it would have been more correct to say that Abramoff had caused his Indian clients to direct money to Democratic pols, rather than that he had personally donated – the truth of that fact is, as Brady reinforces, undeniable.

Her second mistake was heretical: To many people on the DU and Kos commenting boards, the Abramoff scandal is not just a Republican scandal – which of course it is, what with the right controlling all the levers of power – but it is and has to be an exclusively Republican scandal, to which no whiff of Democratic association is permitted.

This is absurd of course, but important – not only is the conviction that political corruption adheres only to the other side an essential element of the rabid partisan’s mental model, but from a tactical standpoint, the 2006 mid-term elections are shaping up to be a competition between two unrelated memes: The right as a party of sleaze and corruption, versus the left as the party of defeat and decline. So once again, the left and right will shout past each other, with each wrestling for the microphone in order to frame the election in a way which favors their side.

Which brings us (finally) to the media issue: The filtering software the WaPo blog uses apparently couldn’t keep up with the obscenity stream, and Brady decided to pull the plug on comments for a while to let things cool down, and let technology catch up. Some have noted that, while there are moonbats on both sides of the political spectrum, the ones to the left seem to feel a little less inhibited about expressing themselves digitally. Your view on this will probably depend a very great deal upon where you sit – I tend to agree with the Commissar that venom drips more readily from the leftish tongue. But then again, I would.

But all of that is so much less important now than it has ever been before. As Peggy Noonan pointed out in a recent WSJ Op-Ed (and which an occasional reader sent me to, thanks awfully Jason):

Eleven years ago the Democrats lost control of Congress. Then they lost the presidency. But just as important, maybe more enduringly important, they lost their monopoly on the means of information in America. They lost control of the pipeline. Or rather there are now many pipelines, and many ways to use the information they carry. The other day, Dana Milbank, an important reporter for the Washington Post, the most important newspaper in the capital, wrote a piece deriding Judge Alito. Once such a piece would have been important. Men in the White House would have fretted over its implications. But within hours of filing, Mr. Milbank found his thinking analyzed and dismissed on the Internet; National Review Online called him a “policy bimbo.”

She’s on to something here, and it’s something that others have noticed as well: The barbarians of free and competitive thinking have breached the barricades of conventional wisdom. There are so many sources of information out there that people will be free to observe fact, but pick and choose on orientation, or framing. That ability by itself is probably morally neutral, since it is at least possible that as many people will choose orientations that coincide with their preconceptions (AKA: confirmation bias) as there will be those who are exposed to new ways of looking at the world.

But listen again to the WaPo blog’s Jim Brady:

I think (newspapers) absolutely have to get heavy into the internet. I’m not one of those who believes (sic) that newspapers are going to be dead in ten years. I think they’re going to have a long…they’re going to have a healthy life, and there’s going to be people who will always be interested in reading a newspaper, but I think more of the share will go to the web, and these kind of interactive features, and willingness to engage the audience and hear them out is really important to it, which is why we’ve pushed it.

This is where it’s going to get fun, when the editors and content writers of the national media have to engage with their readership on the basis of facts, and where the rest of the readership is allowed to watch the subsequent discourse like jurors in a court of law. They will weigh and assess the quality of discourse and formulate their own opinions. Here, spin dies.

Which brings me (at last!) to my final point: In most of America, civility still counts for something, and rudeness is off-putting. People who get their panties in a bunch when the national media frame a fact in a way not to their liking are legion. Those who get incensed enough to launch online jihads and engage in vituperative name-calling, somewhat less so. The venom not only colors the argument, it debases the person spewing it.

And the rest of us are watching.


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Filed under Best of Neptunus Lex, by lex, Carroll "Lex" LeFon, Carroll LeFon, Media, Neptunus Lex

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