ROOTS (PART 2): When Jim Rutenberg spoke with embattled press colleagues, their words were inspiring, as usual (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/04). How did his mainstream colleagues respond to their critics on the web? Most political reporters interviewed for this article insisted that outside forces did not sway them from being fair, Rutenberg reported, cuing the strings. Earlier, at the top of his piece, he offered a similar overview:
RUTENBERG (10/28/04): Journalists covering the campaign believe the intent [of web critics] is often to bully them into caving to a particular point of view. They insist the efforts have not swayed them in any significant way, though others worry the criticism could eventually have a chilling effect.Reporters insisted they wouldnt be bullied or swayed from their usual fairness! Still and all, web criticism might have a chilling effect, the troubled reporters solemnly warned. Indeed, a couple [of reporters] admitted they could not rule out having pulled punches in small and even subconscious ways because of their critics. Darn it! The bullying of the webs press critics may already be having an effect!
Indeed, Rutenbergs overall picture was hard to miss. Howard Fineman did offer a murky but positive statement about the effects of web criticism. Most of us now realize that this is a constant conversation, and I think that largely that part of it is good, the Newsweek scribe was quoted saying—before going to on to note that [s]ome of the [criticism] includes very personal and nasty things about people, criticism that is hurtful. But Rutenbergs overall construction was clear. Web critics were trying to bully reporters into being unfair or caving in to partisan scripts. Indeed, how scary was the overall situation? Early in the piece, one observer offered a chilling analysis:
RUTENBERG: Many of the Internet writers say they have been empowered by the Web to begin serving as a long-needed real-time check on mainstream outlets and reporters who they say wield too much power, sometimes irresponsibly and often with hidden partisan motives.Yikes! Web critics are attacking professionalism itself! No, its not clear who or what Rosen specifically meant, and his overall comments may have been quite instructive. But whats the overall portrait in Rutenbergs piece? Press critics on the web are trying to bully reporters. Their work is frequently driven by insults. Indeed, theres a campaign underway to totally politicize journalism—an attack on professionalism itself. But Rutenbergs colleagues are standing tall. His colleagues insist they wont be swayed from their traditional fairness.
''The traditional players, including the press, have lost some of the control or exclusive control they used to have,'' said Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University, who keeps his own Web log, or blog.
But, he added, I think there's a campaign under way to totally politicize journalism and totally politicize press criticism.
It's really an attack not just on the liberal media or press bias, it's an attack on professionalism itself, on the idea that there could be disinterested reporters, he said.
How unbalanced is that portrait? Consider a question that doesnt seem to have been asked—a question that is never allowed to intrude on this articles parade of rank horribles.
In his article, Rutenbergs sources insist, several times, that they wont be swayed by their critics. They wont allow critics to bully them into caving to a particular point of view. They wont allow these outside forces to sway them from being fair. Yes, theyre afraid of a chilling effect which might be produced by their bullying critics. But good news! They insist that their critics on the web have not swayed them in any significant way!
Several things seem clear from this presentation. Its clear that Rutenberg allowed his sources to discuss their own heroic postures. And its clear that Rutenberg let them describe the malevolent posture of those on the web. But one question doesnt seem to intrude on this deeply pleasing portrait. Rutenberg doesnt seem to have asked an obvious question: Have web press critics have ever made valid points? Have mainstream reporters ever learned from their critics? Have Rutenbergs colleagues ever been swayed by instructive complaints that they find on the web? Theres no sign that Rutenbergs sources were asked. Nor do they seem to have answered.
Do you see why we emitted mordant chuckles when we hungrily devoured this piece? We chuckled when heroic scribes piously swore that they hadnt been swayed by their critics. We laughed because this statement was stunningly accurate—and because it comprised such a stark self-indictment. Indeed, over the course of the past seven years, Rutenbergs colleagues have persistently refused to take instruction from valid critiques on the web. Now they brag and boast about it. Indeed, they proudly insist that they havent been swayed in any significant manner.
Truer words were never spoken! But readers, have web press critics offered valid complaints? Theres no sign that Rutenbergs colleagues were asked. Which returns us to what we ourselves told the scribe—to the incomparable example we gave him, an example which landed on the cutting-room floor as Jim Rutenbergs boo-hooing colleagues described the abuse theyve endured.
TOMORROW: Part 3—Praising Tumulty