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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Invasion of the dirty masses

(Updated below)

The principal benefit from the emergence of the blogosphere is that it has opened up our political discourse to a much wider and more diverse group of participants. Previously, establishment journalists and their hand-picked commentators were the sole vehicle for the dissemination of political opinions. The only commentators and opinions which received any real attention were the ones which establishment journalists deemed worthy of attention. Those who were outside of the club of established journalists were ignored and unable to have their opinions heard.

All of that has changed with the blogosphere. The blogosphere is a hard-core and pure meritocracy. It doesn’t matter who you are or what your pedigree is. You either produce persuasive arguments and do so with credibility, or you don’t. Whether someone has influence in the blogosphere has nothing to do with their institutionalized credentials and everything to do with the substance of what they produce. That is why even those who maintain their anonymity can be among the most popular, entertaining and influential voices. The blogosphere has exploded open the gates of influence which were previously guarded so jealously by the establishment journalists.

For precisely that reason, many establishment journalists have raging contempt for the blogosphere. It is a contempt grounded in the fallacy of credentialism and a pseudo-elitist belief that only the approved and admitted members of their little elite journalist club can be trusted to enlighten the masses. Many of them see blogs as a distasteful and anarchic sewer, where uncredentialed and irresponsible people who are totally unqualified to articulate opinions are running around spewing all sorts of uninformed trash. And these journalistic gate-keepers become especially angry when blogospheric criticism is directed towards other establishment journalists, who previously were immune from any real public accountability.

The irony, though, is that many of these establishment journalists have been forced to accommodate the growing influence of the blogosphere by starting blogs of their own. And the unedited and immediate format of blogging means that they sometimes unintentionally reveal their real mindset, and one can see it in the light of day.

The blog over at The New Republic, called The Plank, provides countless examples of establishment journalists' embittered, self-loving thought processes at work. In some ways, The Plank is the national headquarters for petty journalistic elitism and the fallacy of credentialism. At The Plank, those who are properly credentialed are entitled to an immediate presumption of the rightness of their opinions (regardless of the substantive merit), and opinions expressed by those who are without these TNR-recognized credentials are presumptively worthless.

This post from The Plank's Jason Zengerle – in which he opines with regard to the NSA scandal that "some of the outrage is in fact outrageous" -- illustrates the problem perfectly:

David Rivkin and Lee Casey, who both worked as lawyers in the Reagan and Bush I Justice Departments, take to The New York Times op-ed page today to argue that President Bush's warrantless domestic surveillance program is legal. "The program's existence has now become public, and howls of outrage have ensued," they write. "But in fact, the only thing outrageous about this policy is the outrage itself."

I don't know enough about the law to know whether Rivkin and Casey are technically correct (although the fact that Cass Sunstein, as honest a broker as you're likely to find among law professors, thinks that Bush may well have been within his legal rights makes me think that some of the outrage is in fact outrageous).

Zengerle says that he is incapable of reaching his own conclusion as to whether the President broke the law, but is nonetheless willing to dismiss the outrage over this scandal – and even label the outrage itself "outrageous" -- based on nothing other than the say-so of Cass Sunstein. Without mentioning a single argument of Sunstein’s that he finds persuasive (indeed, without even indicating that he read any of Sunstein’s arguments), Zengerle turns up his nose at all of the protests over Bush's law-breaking as nothing more than the ignorant, base anger of the masses. After all, Cass Sunstein is an Approved, Credentialed and Important Person at TNR, so when he expresses an opinion, one can assume that it is likely correct.

In contrast to the towering giants of Credentialism like Sunstein, those whom Zengerle has not heard of can barely be mentioned in good company, let alone be taken seriously. In this post, Zengerle explains why he is so offended by the widespread pedestrian criticisms of The New York Times’ Bill Keller based on the fact that the Times concealed the NSA story for more than a year after it learned of it.

In particular, Zengerle takes aim at the criticisms of the Times made by, to use Zengerle’s term, "a press critic named Jay Rosen." The bulk of Zengerle’s response is devoted to demonstrating that Rosen is a big nobody who Zengerle has never heard of and therefore can’t possibly be qualified to speak ill of Journalism Giant Bill Keller:

I don't know much about Rosen, other than that he must be taken somewhat seriously by media people, since he's frequently linked to on Romenesko (either that or he e-mails Romenesko every time he writes a new blog post). According to his bio, Rosen "had a very brief career in journalism at the Buffalo Courier-Express" before going off to media studies grad school; he's been on the faculty at NYU since 1986.

Now, maybe in the two decades that have passed since he worked at an actual publication, Rosen's forgotten what it takes to put out one of those publications; or maybe the Buffalo Courier-Express had the unique ability, not to mention the unlimited resources, to both report the news and report on itself. But if the Times and most other media outlets actually abided by Rosen's transparency prescription, they wouldn't be able to produce first-rate stories like the one about the NSA's warrantless surveillance.

The snottiness here is breathtaking. According to Zengerle, the only reason why Rosen’s name can even pass the lips of anyone serious is because "he’s frequently linked to on Romenesko" (although that might only be because "he e-mails Romenesko every time he writes a blog post"). And Rosen has barely even worked in real journalism, and when he did, he worked at something called "the Buffalo Courier-Express," which Zengerle makes a point of mocking.

What is always missing from these snide dismissals is any consideration of the merits of the actual argument. People in these journalistic clubs will always defend each other from outside attacks no matter the merits, because they believe in their souls that their inclusion in the club by itself proves that they are superior to those outside of it when it comes to assessing news events and forming thoughts and opinions on them.

This morning, The Plank’s Michael Crowley lashed out at what he perceives to be unfair attacks on fellow establishment journalist Sue Schmidt of The Washington Post. Schmidt stated, falsely, that Jack Abramoff donated money to some Democrats. The Plank had previously demanded that the blogosphere "apologize" to Schmidt for what it believes were unfair criticisms of her, and this morning Crowley let loose his real thoughts about the crass, unregulated, uncredentialed world of blogging:

Perhaps my favorite part of this utterly inane attack is the commenter who opines, "Schmidt's getting paid like Armstrong Williams got paid." How does somone (sic) so stupid manage to operate a computer? Anti-TNR bloggers often tease us about our modest circulation numbers as compared to their impressive readerships. But if that's the kind of simpleton certain bloggers spend their lives entertaining, I, for one, don't mind the comparison. The relationship between a blog item and a response like the ones I'm discussing here is not new-media "journalism," nor is it activism. It's vaudeville. Except it's not even funny.

The never-ending parade of journalism embarrassments which we've witnessed -- from Bob Woodward and Judy Miller to the Times’ refusal to explain why it concealed this NSA story for a full year -- has exposed the decadent and corrupt underbelly of these media stars. The difference is that there was never a mechanism in the past for compelling them to account for their behavior and now there is. And nothing has exposed their fragile, self-absorbed and incestuous mindset more than the responses they give when defending each other.

One of the truly most damaging problems we have faced is that the people in these journalistic and political circles have cared far more about defending themselves and preserving their status in these clubs than they have cared about performing their role as journalists. They defend each other instinctively and truly see themselves as beyond criticism and above accountability, particularly from those who have not reached their lofty journalistic heights. The blogosphere has made it impossible for them to maintain that cocoon. They now have to hear criticism of their work and sometimes even have to lower themselves to addressing it. And as The New Republic bloggers often make crystal clear, they are quite unhappy about all of this.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein is not particularly enamored of the argument I make, to put it mildly, and explains why in a thoughtful (though misguided) post at his blog. I posted my reply to Ezra in his Comments section.

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