The Empire Strikes Back

When I wrote in a blog recently, that:

But then, for all we know, in a few years, the mainstream media might have adapted itself to the blogging world! We should just keep our fingers crossed.

I was not aware that the mainstream media – the gigantic empire that is supposed to make or brake fortunes of politicians and artists alike, is already taking a note, and gearing up into defense. Well, it’s happening already, and somehow I’ve a feeling, this isn’t a one-off phenomenon. We would see a lot of this in coming days and months. What am I talking about? Here is a NYT article (needs registration) about the bloggers being invited to cover the recent Democratic National Convention in the US.

Web Diarists Are Now Official Members of Convention Press Corps

As usual, NYT packs it’s punch in the very subject line itself by clubbing all bloggers — including freelance journalists — into a condescending tag of web diarists. Well, etymologically blog is just a web journal or a diary, but surely there is more to life than etymology ;). What it does however is reduce the importance of the blogging phenomenon in the eyes of the yet neutral readers.

In Demeaning bloggers: the NYTimes is running scared (which probably repeats the NYT’s folly of biasing the subjectline for effect) Danah Boyd observes correctly that:

The entire spin of the article focuses on how bloggers are like children in a candy store – naive, inexperienced and overwhelmed by what is now available to them. The article focuses on the minutia of blogging, emphasizing that bloggers won’t really cover the real issues, but provide the “low-brow” gossip.

Going back to the NYT article, the big-media game of crying objectivity-foul, and take a moral high-ground on the basis of definition:

“I think that bloggers have put the issue of professionalism under attack,” said Thomas McPhail, professor of media studies at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who argues that journalists should be professionally credentialed. “They have no pretense to objectivity. They don’t cover both sides.”

Observe that the very notion of objectivity of the mainstream media (and the lack of it in bloggers) is introduced as a subjective opinion of a Professor (lending it an air of authority). However, I agree with the basic assumption that conventional journalism keeps objectivity as a noble aim (which is violated every other second, but we’ll let that pass for now) whereas bloggers don’t even pretend to be objective. Afterall, they are voicing their opinion. But the holy-cow of objectivity in reporting is just that — a product of media’s collective virtual reality kit. The coverage that India has got in the omniscient western press is enough to drive the point home.

Danah Boyd in her Salon.com article The new blogocracy offers defense for blogging:

Blogging is a relatively young phenomenon, and its growing pains and identity search are ever transparent. The tendency of bloggers to talk about blogging is often criticized, yet this practice of self-reflection is precisely what makes blogging a valuable contribution to public discourse. Bloggers are highly critical, questioning creatures. Whatever their subject, they document their observations and examine them inquisitively.

The article also talks about the objectivity/subjectivity issue that’s very much at the centre of this war:

As a practice, journalism espouses an air of objectivity, purporting to cover all sides of a debate, equally and with emotional distance. While few believe that journalists are unbiased, it is considered a respectable aim of the profession and readers expect them to be as objective as possible. Bloggers, on the other hand, have no such cultural code and their readers rarely hold them accountable for objectivity. In fact, what makes blogging confusing for many is that the practices encompassed by that term are quite diverse.

In Lila: An Enquiry Into Morals, Robert M. Pirsig talks about the objectivity wall that’s protecting the whole field of cultural anthropology. But objective cultural anthropology is like objective journalism — good only in theory. You only see what you want to see! So NYT is really walking on a thin ice of objectivity. The Salon piece goes deeper into the issue:

There appear to be four primary conceptual paradigms that frame blogging: 1) journalism; 2) diarying or journaling; 3) note passing; 4) fieldbook note taking. Everyone is trying to make sense of blogging by stuffing it into one of these paradigms, but in fact, it is a new practice that transcends all four while drawing on aspects from all of them

Rajiv Malhotra, Sankran Sanu and others on Sulekha have argued precisely that the Western (and hence Indian) academics have always tried to fit in the Indic culture in western paradigms — and with disastrous results. Instead of using such opportunities to enlarge or even replace paradigms, the power centers have this tendency of stuffing the data into paradigms, discarding alleged dichotomies, contradictions. This is because, when a model changes, power centers change, and who would let that happen? Certainly not those who are at the center.

Thankfully, the Salon article chooses to elaborate on the nuances of this interesting debate on the role of bloggers in the media order. A very insightful paragraph (emphasis mine)

Blogging will not replace traditional journalism, but it presents a threat to the normative press culture and an opportunity for radical reporting. Bloggers do place the issue of professionalism under attack, not by being unprofessional, but by exposing the ways in which the media operates. As blogging reaches the masses, people are introduced to information that was not reported because it did not suit the party line. Bloggers will happily document the power games that they witness in the press room and will expose future Jayson Blairs. Bloggers also capture information that the mainstream press does not yet realize is valuable

I feel that bloggers should not try and replace the mainstream journalism. Afterall, they are the new phenomenon. Let the mainstream media adapt. The alternative media should stick to their niche. The future is too complex to predict anyway. What is certain is that we’re at interesting crossroads.

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