ALAN RM JONES
Of screaming plastic turkeys and fish wrap
Afew weeks back, it was reported that the BBC had tried to book an interview with Bob Marley. I don’t mean Robert Marley, Dean of Engineering at Montana State University. No, the dear old Beeb wanted to chat with the very late ganja-worshiping Rastafarian musician, Bob Marley.
The British broadcaster admitted to being ‘red-faced’ over the attempted séance – a Freudian slip no doubt. And there are apparently no plans afoot at Broadcasting House – home to the BBC – to set up a dead rockers occult interview network, featuring such legends as Hendrix, Joplin and Elvis (oh, wait, he’s still alive).
You couldn’t be faulted for wondering how a network with billions of pounds at its disposal in the form of compulsory licence fees could make such a blunder. But alas, worse mistakes have been made by one of the MSM’s most influential global media establishments.
(‘MSM’, by the by, is not a trendy new 24-hour music video channel, nor is it an unwanted ingredient found in your take-away chow mein that jacks up your blood pressure – though it might do that anyway. MSM stands for mainstream media. Television, radio and newspapers: collectively they are the MSM. News and views on the Internet, though also an MSM medium – as in the singular of media and not as in spirit conduit – is also the domain of what is not mainstream: web diaries and blogs.)
It’s a definition based on scale and means, though not necessarily one based on content or viewpoint. It alludes to the Goliath-like resources network TV and major publishing mastheads bring to newsgathering. That world, with its foreign bureaus, editors, sub-editors and huge circulation numbers, stands in stark contrast to the legions of solitary, keyboard bashing, sleep-impaired Davids inhabiting the so-called blogosphere.
But, despite their comparatively meager resources and typical amateur status, bloggers have made their mark on the MSM. The early retirement in the US of CBS anchor Dan Rather last October, and more recently the resignation of CNN president Eason Jordan, were both attributed to the role played by bloggers.
Those resignations have prompted some mainstreamers to hit back. One former CBS executive complained on Fox News that ‘these bloggers have no checks and balances…. You couldn’t have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances and a guy sitting in his living room in his pyjamas writing.’
Fair enough. But so far it’s bloggers in pyjamas, 2; television executives in Armani, nil.
To a good many of the pyjama brigade – in both America and Australia – ‘mainstream’ is a glaring misnomer. In the view of these midnight warriors, the mistakes of the MSM demonstrate all too clearly that the traditional media is anything but mainstream and that its values and motivations are at odds with the beats they cover.
As the Sydney Morning Herald’s David Marr admitted, ‘The natural culture of journalism is kind of vaguely soft-left inquiry skeptical of authority [sic]. I mean, that’s just the world out of which journalists come. If they don’t come out of that world, they really can’t be reporters. I mean, if you’re not skeptical of authority, find another job. You know, just find another job. And that is the kind of soft-leftie kind of culture.’
The irony, apparently lost on Marr, is that the inquiries of bloggers, themselves skeptical of MSM authority, have forced some ‘soft-leftie’ journalists to rethink their own career choices.
Bloggers and their contributors provide a refreshingly democratic, and highly efficient, alternative. They can get to the bottom of an issue at lightning speed. Bloggers exposed CBS’s journalistic malpractice in days, not weeks or months.
Tim Blair agrees that blogs are providing a watchful eye on the media. Blair is uniquely situated to judge. Since 2001, he’s been writing one of Australia’s most-read blogs (http://timblair.net), which also has a big world-wide following. When not in his pyjamas, he’s a standard-bearer for the MSM, as the Bulletin’s deputy editor. ‘The impact [of blogs] on the traditional media is big and getting bigger’, says Blair.
I asked Blair if he thought there was any conflict between his two roles? ‘All the time’, he quips. ‘Seriously, though, I find having a hand in the blog world helps me in my role as editor. It’s another check. It help keep me grounded.’
Was Blair surprised by some of the attacks leveled at bloggers?
‘I’m always amazed by the sheer preciousness of those working in the news media. They’re happy to make fun of everyone else, but have wafer-thin skin – you couldn’t measure it with an electron microscope – when the finger is pointed back at them’, says Blair.
But Blair believes that most Australian journalists see value in blogs, though some, notably Peter McEvoy, executive producer of ABC’s Media Watch, ‘are dismissive or hostile.’
‘His loss’, adds Blair. ‘That show could do with some blog-like scope and attention to detail.’
Until recently, unless you had a lot of information at your fingertips – like a news clipping service and a vast reference archive as well as a staff to search it for you – you could never compete with traditional news outlets. They really had an effective monopoly on information. News consumers were at their mercy.
Reporters could much more easily slither out of their own words from one news cycle to the next. As Blair says, ‘there was a time, basically before Google, when yesterday’s mistakes were today’s fish wrapper’. No longer.
Blair points to the Iyad Allawi ‘executioner’ story as a good example – an unfounded rumour that Iraq’s interim president had personally executed prisoners. Blair says the story had been quickly and thoroughly discredited thanks to bloggers in Iraq and elsewhere.
‘By the time [the Herald’s] Paul McGeough latched onto the Baghdad urban myth, bloggers were ready to pounce’, says Blair.
The ‘Dean scream’ is another excellent case. There was something about former US democratic presidential challenger Howard Dean that said, Maybe having this guy’s finger on the nuclear button isn’t the best idea. But when Dean made his unsettling primal scream, the Washington correspondent for the Age and the Herald, Marian Wilkinson, didn’t file.
It was the scream heard round the world, ending Dean’s presidential hopes, and Wilkinson didn’t think it rated a mention in dispatches. Bloggers everywhere heard it and knew what it meant. Somebody else – who didn’t yelp like a wounded animal – was going to be the Democratic presidential nominee.
‘Good old-fashioned reporting sense said Dean’s scream was newsworthy. Look, it’s not necessarily a left-right thing. Look at the way the media stuffed it up on [Mark] Latham. It wasn’t only left-leaning journalists that hadn’t cottoned on that Latham was going to crater’, says Blair.
But Blair admits despite blogdom’s best efforts some stories, no matter how wrong, are repeated over and over again as if true. Blair points to the mythical plastic Thanksgiving Day turkey Bush is
alleged to have served to the troops in Iraq. ‘Even though that story has been shown to be bogus, some reporters and columnists won’t – or can’t – let go of it’, Blair laments.
On further reflection, Blair admits that he’d be disappointed if the plastic turkey faded away altogether. ‘It’s been around so long, I think many bloggers, myself included, have become attached to it. That turkey has become part of the lore of the early days of the revolution now sweeping the media’, Blair says somewhat wistfully.