info 09.27.04

Mixed Media

Matthew Klam's cover piece yesterday in the Times Magazine about political bloggers spent a perhaps disproportionate amount of space detailing Joshua Micah Marshall's wrinkled clothing and the notion that bloggers in general are a scruffy lot. What you didn't get was a sense of why Marshall's Talking Points Memo is a must-read for those left-of-center and a lightning rod for those to the right.

According to Klam, Marshall is "an irate spitter of well-crafted vitriol…" and that "oversimplifying weighty issues" his preferred method. But that isn't really accurate. Marshall is able to write with uncanny clarity, but anyone who has read about the Niger uranium documents on his blog could hardly accuse Marshall of oversimplifying. And as for being a spitter of vitriol, there's a healthy dose of invective to be sure, but Marshall can also write dispassionately, cogently, and provide plenty of illumination on a wide variety of subjects. That's why people read him and Klam doesn't seem to get that.

Klam does his bit to paint bloggers as suspect by nature, a view still held by much of traditional media. Former CBS executive Jonathan Klein told Fox News recently that there was no point in comparing CBS with, sniff, "a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing." That's just begging for comeuppance and CBS got theirs. (And, after all, "amateurs" holding forth is hardly a new phenomenon. Political blogging is like Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park, wired. And thus much more influential.)

In his Times article, Klam also posits that "it's hard to listen to a calm and rational debate when the building is burning and your pants are smoking." But where exactly are those calm and rational debates? Certainly not on television. Consider CNN's programming this past weekend.

With about five weeks to go before the election, the once-worthy network couldn't focus on anything happening in the world but Florida. Of course it's a big story, but to the virtual exclusion of all else? It's the news equivalent of crack addiction, and they just couldn't stop themselves: Jeanne! Hurricane! Destruction! Our reporter is in the wind! Devastation! Things blowing around! Extensive live coverage! And rain! And wind! Wind!!! Still dangerous! Or how about, among the top stories on their website this morning: "Kevin Costner weds, goes canoeing." How can The Onion compete with that?

In his book Cruel and Unusual, Mark Crispin Miller, professor of media studies at NYU, details some examples of CNN's decline over the past few years. One of the most notorious is how the anchors of that network treated former U.N. weapons inspector Scott Ritter before the invasion of Iraq. Ritter, as you may recall, was urging that the inspectors be allowed to continue and attempt to resolve the matter peacefully. But in various interviews, Kyra Phillips, Miles O'Brien, and Paula Zahn did everything they could to smear Ritter. Zahn wondered aloud to viewers whether Ritter was "disloyal" to the U.S. and had "drunk Saddam Hussein's Kool-Aid?"

If the networks aren't going to do a thorough job of vetting sources, if they're going to spend their resources on hurricanes and Laci Peterson, if they're going to put dimwitted yahoos into anchor chairs, is it any wonder viewers get disgusted and tune out, leaving plenty of room for bloggers in pajamas?

We have no idea how to solve the network's declining viewership. But here's something we'd like to see. How about a calm and rational debate program in which outlandish allegations could be proven or disproven by the record? You know, actual facts? As Ali G might say, "H'aint we got the tech-mology for it?" If bloggers can get access to documents in a matter of seconds, why can't a news program get relevant video or speeches or articles being discussed while guests are still on and play them then and there? That might make for enlightening television. Might even cut down on a few spurious charges.
The comedy show Royal Canadian Air Farce broadcast a few years ago one of our favorite sketches called the CNN Time Delay Interview, a brief exchange between Aaron Brown and Christiane Amanpour. Good for a laugh. Find it here — you have to scroll down to the fourth video.


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