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« Telephone Wars, Part Two | Main | More On The Close Shave »

Pot...Kettle On Line Two

Instantman points out this little anti-blogging screed by Tim Rutten in that "serious paper," the Los Angeles Times. It's chock full of pretension and fraught with snark. (In case you're having trouble getting to the piece, you can tell a newspaper is "serious" because it requires its on-line readers to register, so that it can spam them.)

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.

You know, like that crank Tom Paine. Wouldn't want anyone out there rousing the rabble, you know.

Or is it just in the nineteenth century that pamphleteering went to hell?

The cranks had all sorts of idiosyncratic preoccupations--single tax schemes, silver-backed currency, vegetarianism and the metaphysical benefits of healthy bowels, for example.

Not to be confused with idiosynchratic preoccupations like promoting higher taxes, more government spending, less ability for people to defend themselves, how all will be fine in the Middle East if we would just understand why they hate us, that we shouldn't defend ourselves against nuclear missiles, and other oddities that regularly appear in not only the opinion section of "serious papers" like the LA Times, but regularly in their reportage as well.

Stand in awe of the chutzpah of any paper that ever runs pieces by Bob Scheer and Jeremy Rifkin, let alone one that chronically does so, criticizing webloggers for publishing "idiosynchratic" notions.

Bloggers tend to dabble in politics, media and vendetta.

Hmmm...first he accuses us of being narcissistic, and now this. Apparently Mr. Rutten is irony challenged.

Wednesday, for instance, Kaus posted an item on his personal site ( 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.

Well, apparently Mr. Rutten is laboring under two delusions.

The first one is common to journalism school graduates (or even dropouts), because it's part of the modern creed--that there is some achievable perfection called "objective factual reporting."

The second, which is not only a delusion, but a conceit, is that his employer's paper not only attempts to achieve that platonic ideal, but actually succeeds.

Here's a reality check. Stories are (at least for now) reported by humans, with human emotions, and human points of view. They are inevitably viewed through the prism of the reporter, and as they become ink and pixels, are passed through the sieve of his experience and prejudices. About any event, there is an infinitude of information that could be provided, but there isn't ink and newsprint enough, nor bandwidth, nor time in the day for the reporter to write it, and the reader to read it.

So a story has to be reduced to what the reporter considers to be its essential elements. Like the old joke about the sculptor, he takes the body of available facts, and cuts away everything that doesn't look like an elephant. But that's the key; the sculptor is carving an elephant--a decision usually made before chisel is taken in hand. It may be that the rock from which he's knocking off the non-pachydermic chips wasn't simply a rectangular block--it perhaps naturally started out with a resemblance to an elephant, but that doesn't mean that he couldn't have hacked out a hippo instead.

So it is with a news story. The reporter has to start with some notion of what the story is. And as soon as that decision is made, the bias has begun, and continues. He has to decide which facts are facts, and which are conjecture. He has to decide which of those facts and conjectures should be included, and which left out. He has to decide which words to use--whether the protagonist is, for example, a "terrorist" or a "freedom fighter." Each of those decisions, word by word, preconception by preconception, eventually determines whether the reporter creates an elephant, or a hippo, or a redwood tree.

And after that, if he works for a "serious newspaper," he has to submit it to an editor, who will either agree that the reporter has created an elephant, or he might point out that he left out some critical item (e.g., a trunk) or included one that seems out of place (e.g., webbed bird claws for feet).

Once past this serious process, the story is complete. And in the mind of Mr. Rutten, "accurate the first time," though a different reporter at a different "serious newspaper," working with exactly the same body of facts (but a different background, sensibility, and bias) might write, and his editor edit, a completely different "accurate" story in which, lo and behold, it turns that it was a hippo after all, or perhaps...a platypus.

No, in the static world of "serious papers," they don't approach an ideal--they have a deadline, and they rapidly home in on what's almost certainly wrong in the minds of much of their readership, with little feedback, because they're Reporters and Editors, and it's their job to tell us what the news is, and what to think. They're Serious professionals, trained in J-school. They say, "we say it's spinach and to hell with it."

If they're called on it, blatant misrepresentations of fact are occasionally handled with a retraction buried on page A23, but for the most part, the story sits there, right or wrong. And if it's wrong it festers, and the infection takes the form of declining subscriptions, and even active boycotts and new direct competition.

And the anger against the media builds, not because of the bias per se, but in their contempt for their readership, and their sanctimonious attitudes and denial of their bias--that is their, in Mr. Rutten's own word, "scam," and people are getting sick of it, because they now have alternatives. They are turning to weblogs because we are refreshingly honest about our biases--what you see is what you get, and if you don't like it, you aren't stuck with it, as you are in a one-newspaper town--another weblog is just a mouse click away.

What Mickey Kaus seems to be saying (at least to me) is that in the blogosphere, we recognize that every story is a work in progress, and as it's discussed, and bounced back and forth, it becomes more clear over time as to just what kind of animal it is, and a consensus builds, posts are updated, or new ones are added to elaborate and refine it.

He uses the word asymptote, because consensus doesn't mean unanimity. There is no ideal story, there is no objective, accurate truth--the best that we can do is approach it and get broad agreement on the meaning of the known data. And in so doing, we can at least approach the idealistic journalistic goal, at which "serious papers" often fail miserably.

[Note, I saw that Kaus, Welch and Layne had responded to this before me, via Glenn's site, but I took care not to actually read their responses before I wrote mine, so as not to contaminate my own thought processes with their much better ones. So if there's any similarity to things that I say here and to what they wrote (I'm heading off to look at them now, having finished this piece), just think of it as a puny mind occasionally thinking like a great one.]

[Monday morning update.]

As Mickey Kaus says, it seems to be a rule of these little edited, mainstream potshots at error-prone bloggers that the article contain at least one egregious and embarrassing factual error. In addition to his misattribution of Mickey's words, he had another one. As someone with one of his degrees in applied mathematics, I'm embarrassed to say that I missed it in my original critique, but it was pointed out in the comments section. An asymptote is not a "line approaching a curve," as Mr. Rutten would have it, but a curve approaching a line. Guess he slept through math class himself that day.

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 23, 2002 01:08 PM
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Nice work, Rand. Haven't yet read Welch, et al., (whoever al. is) yet but I don't imagine they did a better job.

Posted by Ken Summers at June 23, 2002 01:58 PM

Let's not forget John Milton's Areopagitica, 1644, the great pamphlet opposing censorship and praising freedom of thought or the pamphlets of the abolitionists in the the 19th century.

Posted by Janis Gore at June 23, 2002 05:18 PM

As a side note, George Orwell used to collect pamphlets. I wonder what he would think of blogs.

Posted by Andrea Harris at June 23, 2002 06:14 PM

And H.P. Lovecraft was heavily involved in the DIY movement, publishing several of his stories in that format to be commented on by readers.

Posted by Bill Peschel at June 23, 2002 06:23 PM

May I suggest that you are too kind. Remember that, in general, grad's of "Journalism" schools (post-Woody&Bernie) have been infused with two unshakeable beliefs - 1)they have been consecrated in a "higher calling"; 2)only they have the ability to see the "truth" Those beliefs, and 4 years immersion in a typical university "community" is guaranteed to produce repetitive idiocy.

Posted by Bill Rost at June 23, 2002 06:54 PM

Perhaps a minor point, but Rutten's "definition" of an asymptote is somewhat backwards: The asymptote is the straight line that is "approached by" the curve; it does not "approach" the curve. Evidently, Mr. Rutten also missed that particular math class.

Posted by Bruce Lagasse at June 23, 2002 07:02 PM

You sort of prove Rutten's point with your citation of Tom Paine. Name a single major pamphlet put out by Paine in the 19th century.

Posted by Brian Carnell at June 23, 2002 07:26 PM

Sorry, Brian Carnell, you need to reread what he wrote. (He points out an 18th century pamphleteer who can't be dismissed, then asks, rhetorically, oh, so pamphleteering only went bad after Tom Paine?)

Posted by Mike Gebert at June 23, 2002 07:34 PM

Uh, I think he addressed that in the immediate next line. You know, the one that says "Or is it just in the nineteenth century that pamphleteering went to hell?"

Posted by Jeremy L. at June 23, 2002 07:36 PM

Most comprehensive takedown yet of this journalistic paragon (of the California Living section).

Interesting question about Orwell. Blogs might have required an updated edition of 1984. Hard for Big Brother to get a foothold with this many little brothers out there watching him.

Posted by Melissa at June 23, 2002 07:55 PM

"Uh, I think he addressed that in the immediate next line. You know, the one that says "Or is it just in the nineteenth century that pamphleteering went to hell?""

Again, though, he's proving Rutten's point. The answer is yes -- sort of.

Rutten is drawing a parallel between two technological changes that democratized media. Pamphleting was obviously an important political activity in the 18th century, but it took off like gangbusters in the 19th century with the development of the high speed press.

As with weblogs today, the high speed press dramatically reduced the cost and the time involved in self-publishing . . . and ushered in a golden era of American crankdom.

Rutten errs in implying that the cranks are the only important or even a major feature of 19th century pamphleteering. Yes, certainly there were plenty of cranks, but there were also plenty of abolitionists, feminists and others who were able to more easily distribute their ideas thanks to the changes wrought by the high speed press.

Posted by Brian Carnell at June 23, 2002 08:12 PM

"Fraught with snark" is good. Are you a Walt Kelly fan? -- he once used "replete with rue."

Posted by John Weidner at June 23, 2002 08:29 PM

At the LAT and the more grandiose media emporiums everywhere, try User: cypherpunk, Password: cypherpunk. Brought to you gratis by the Cypherpunks.

Posted by Cracker Barrel Philosopher at June 23, 2002 09:01 PM

Am I a Walt Kelly fan?

Well, I read some Pogo, but I can't say that I'm a serious devotee.

I was just looking for something a little less overused than "snarky."

Posted by Rand Simberg at June 23, 2002 09:43 PM

Great job Rand, added yours to my post on it.

Posted by Eric Olsen at June 24, 2002 04:39 AM

Blogging is the new pamphleteering but unlike the yutz writing the article I think it is a good thing. Publishing in all its forms has gone the way of the music business, relying on being trendy with a nice touch of PCism. They are tired, predictable and boorish.

Blogging (and the internet) allows writers to get their stuff out to others, have it critiqued and then have it commented on. Blogging is a great way of improving one's writing. Why do you think so many journos and writers have blogs?

Enjoy Bill's Lovecraft comment as well. He, like many of the great writers of fiction, would never have been published by "mainstream" publishing. It was only after the poor man died, was buried and was rotting a long time that anyone realised that his brilliance brilliant.

Posted by Andrew Ian Dodge at June 24, 2002 10:34 AM

I think we all know the real issue is that nonprofessional journalists are writing unsupervised commentary and being read by impressionable people lacking the nuanced appreciation you get from yer basic quality newspaper of record.

I don't know about you folks, but I always feel a bit... unclean... if I inadvertently form an opinion of my own without reference to the real opinionmakers. What if everyone read an ecelctic variety of commentary and thought about it without professional guidance?

You got it - mass hysteria, human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together.

Posted by Stephen Skubinna at June 24, 2002 01:21 PM

Yes, Stephen: They Report, They it should be. We are not worthy.

Posted by Melissa at June 24, 2002 02:40 PM

I missed the asymptote error, and I shouldn't have. He's got nineteenth century pamplets wrong though. Sure, there were "cranks," but they were the minority. I wrote about the literary point of view in my blog, so I'll just close by saying you've got a good take on the flaws of Rutten's piece.

Posted by Lisa Spangenberg at June 24, 2002 02:54 PM

He also misses the most important point, the same one that make evolution work: a progressive sifting of current entities with some dying off and others living. In the case of blogs, the sifting mechanisms tend to be fact-checking and Occam's Razor.

It everyone posted idiocies and there was no sifting for truth or usefulness or whatever, the inherent level of idiocy would remain. With a sifting mechanism idiocy is gradually sifted out, with the remaining stuff being closer to truth. Thus, Mickey's asymptote.

He is, I think, arguing that "professional sifters" (i.e. editors and j-school, etc) are better at truth-sifting than the 'sphere. Time to test, no? I'm betting he won't want to test. As noted above, he has been inducted into the Mystery and knows the secret signs and passwords, and he doesn't want to give up the power.

Posted by JorgXMcKie at September 13, 2004 12:06 PM

I've never understood this "J-school" business. They mostly just have undergraduate degrees, right? My bachelors degree is in Statistics - should I start referring to my college days as S-School? Or should I just stick to my usual description, and keep calling it B.S. School?

Posted by Tim Higgins at September 13, 2004 12:27 PM

So big media is upset that pampleteers are exposing their bias. CBS screwed up big time, and it is the persons catching them at it who are the bad guys. Phooey.

I don't read the LA Times nor even the local San Jose Mercury News. They are crap and have lied to me too often. I don't need to be told what to think, I just want a "Joe Friday" newspaper. Just the facts.

Anyone who says I am not worthy to figure things out for myself ain't gonna get listened to by me. I don't care what schooling you went to, J-school, law school or what. I got the same mark 1 mod 1 brain they have, and even if experience differ, I can still think for myself.

I disagree with your accertion that there are no objective facts. But this is a minor quibble.

Posted by Ben at September 14, 2004 12:55 AM

I didn't say there are no objective facts. I said there's no such thing as objective factual reporting.

Posted by Rand Simberg at September 14, 2004 05:06 AM

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