Saturday, February 16, 2008

Thoughts on Blog Amnesty and the Mainstream Media

(cross-posted at The Smirking Chimp)

I enjoyed last week's Blog Amnesty. I don't get to spend a lot of time reading and commenting on other people's blogs, certainly not as much as I'd like, so it was a great opportunity for me to expand my blog horizons. Like many people, my life is filled up with family, work, friends and obligations, and I always feel 'behind the eight-ball' in regards to keeping up with my favorite bloggers, and discovering new blogs. Having a designated 'Blog Amnesty Day' made it easier to do that.

It also got me thinking about the phenomenon of blogging, and how it differs from the mainstream media. In the wake of the consolidation of media that has been going on for the last 20 years, blogging has stepped up as the 'adversarial' press envisioned by our founders in the First Amendment. The fact that bloggers are mostly unpaid and uncontrolled has freed them to a large extent from incestuous relationships with those they are supposed to be covering for the people. As the lines between 'journalism' and infotainment have blurred, it has become more difficult to separate truth from opinion on television, which is still where the majority of Americans get their news.

For many years, news was not obligated to support itself financially. A company fortunate enough to get a license to use a portion of the broadcast spectrum had practically a license to print money. As the spectrum is limited, only a lucky few were able to obtain these licenses. The broadcast spectrum, however, is a part of the 'commons' - common resources belonging to the people of the United States. No corporation is allowed to own the airwaves; they may only rent space on the spectrum. In return for the great privilege of being allowed to rent this access to the people of the United States for a trifling sum, the broadcast companies were expected to 'donate' news coverage as a public service. This news coverage was expected to adhere to strict journalistic standards, and was not to be responsible for 'paying its own way' through ratings and advertising, unlike other television and radio shows. However, in the last few years this has been dropped - but no one saw fit to inform Americans of this.

'News' is now expected to hold its own, financially and ratings-wise against entertainment - sitcoms, gossip shows, game shows, reality programming, night-time dramas, etc. - although its purpose is not entertainment. What has been true for other entertainment programs (that they are chosen by the networks to maximize ad revenue and target the advertisers' preferred demographic - young white males) has now been required of news, resulting in info-tainment rather than the obligation to inform the public. This means (and has meant for a while now) that the media and the press, specifically protected by the First Amendment for the purpose of advocating for the people rather than the establishment, are now beholden and obligated to the very institutions they have been entrusted with criticizing. But, somehow, no one got around to telling us that. Many people are still under the misapprehension that what we see on television news is unbiased, and must be by law. "They're not allowed to lie on TV!"

The reason that the press is singled out in the First Amendment is that they were expected to be advocating for the people who do not have access to the information that has an impact upon their lives. Can I be in Washington in the halls of Congress every day? Can you? I can't be where the decisions are being made. That's what the press is supposed to do for me. But when it's more important to sell products than give me unbiased information, my rights as a citizen are being infringed upon. The press is protected only upon the assumption that it is advocating for me; doing what I cannot do. The press is supposed to be adversarial, not complicit with power. But that is not the case any more.

One more time: the press is supposed to be adversarial to the powers-that-be.

That concept has been stood upon its head, and never more egregiously than during the Bush Administration. As media become more consolidated and power over it concentrated in a mere five corporations, the idea of media independence is a thing of the past. Opinions are being disseminated by only a handful of people, all in the same club.

Blogging has become a powerful antidote to the consolidation of media. While it is not always appropriate to call it 'journalism', it has become a voice for the voiceless. It is able to take an adversarial position precisely because it is mostly unpaid and therefore uncontrollable, and with the wide variety of opinion available, it's possible to compare different points of view and come to your own conclusion. If you read something that sounds like BS to you, you can search for other articles on that topic and see what the other arguments for and against it are. No one is prevented from saying anything they want, no matter how false or misleading or vile, but it has to stand up to the scrutiny of the rest of the blogosphere and will stand or fall upon its merits.

And, unlike traditional media, the aim of blogging is not to contract, but to expand. Blogroll Amnesty is a great example of this principle, and as some of the so-called 'A-list' blogs become more and more exclusive, and closer to the issues and people they cover, the rest of the blog community seeks to become more inclusive. Instead of jockeying for dominance and pushing little blogs aside, the spirit of the blog community attempts to broaden the range of voices. And a blog is judged on its own quality, rather than how much money has been put into it. If you have something to say that resonates with other people, you will find an audience.

To me, this is the democratic way, and closer to the meaning of what the First Amendment was written for. No, most of us aren't 'journalists'. But everything we say is subject to public scrutiny and debate, and if a post is flawed, you can be sure that someone will point it out. The beauty of blogging is that nothing is just accepted as gospel. If you want to make an assertion, it will not be uncritically swallowed. And any commenter worth paying attention to will have to demonstrate his or her competence in order to be taken seriously. It's a self-correcting system - a true 'meritocracy' of ideas.

It's also a community of people, personalities and relationships. We are often partisan and biased, but as humans the partisanship and bias are on the table, not hidden under a mask of false 'impartiality'. Then you can consider the source in making your decision as to whether you accept or reject that person's argument.

I treasure the friends I've met through blogging - people whose paths I would never have crossed in my daily life. I'm proud to be a citizen of Blogtopia, and I love the fact that it's our ideas and writing that give me and my cohorts a seat at the table, not money or influence. The very fact that I have gotten a book publishing contract from someone hearing something I wrote and e-mailing me out of the blue, and not because I 'knew somebody', had the 'right contacts' or was high-profile in any way, is a testament to the collective power of blogging. It wasn't the number of 'hits' on my site (which aren't huge), or advertising, or anything else but doing the work. 'Wingnut welfare' notwithstanding, so many of us are getting our voices heard based on our hard work and commitment to speaking out, instead of novelty, nepotism, notoriety or the lowest common denominator.

Your voices count. And we are changing things - not overnight, but we are changing things; you can be assured of that.

So, write on, my brothers and sisters! Enquiring Minds want to know!


Unknown said...

All I can say is, "here, here."

Alicia Morgan said...

Thanks, Mathman! And, thanks for being a teacher. In 'Alicia's Universe', teachers would be making a million dollars a year, and teaching jobs would be coveted and fought for. And CEOs would be making minimum wage, and be grateful for it.

Distributorcap said...

after my indulgent vacation ---- and away from real news (CNN is not real news, neither is Glen Beck on HLN, but CNN International is a tad better) --- it is good find out what is really happening.

being on a boat with 3000 others is news in of itself --- and i will comment

but Alicia, as always, a home run

PhysioProf said...

Fuck, yeah!

Alicia Morgan said...

Welcome back, D-cap! I've played a few cruises in my time, and it does take you out of your normal routine - a little catching up is in order, I'm sure! Hope you did some relaxing.

Physioprof - thanks! You do have a way with a pithy phrase!

Connecticut Man1 said...

Nice piece and I agree. The beauty of all of this is that Bloggers are beginning to a real effect on the media and will likely have an even greater effect over time.

Comrade Kevin said...

Well said.

We are no different than philosophical societies who published pamphlets in the 18th century and advanced Enlightenment ideals.

Their ideas were incorporated by the Founding Fathers into the radical experiment in progress that is the United States of America.