Rage Against the MSMachine
The netroots media critique, in its tendency to rely on implicit or explicit accusations of bad faith on the part of the reporter, sometimes reflects a poor understanding of journalism. Media Matters, according to Foser, sidesteps this problem by focusing on "the end product of journalism: actual news reports. We don't try to guess what the journalists in question were thinking, or why they reported the things they did. We focus on content, not intent." Still, the liberal blogosphere's general lack of interest in understanding the internal dynamics of news reporting was apparent in the marked paucity of actual journalists on the numerous journalism-related panels at the Yearly Kos convention. "It can be so patronizing. Somebody at Yearly Kos--a guy I know and like--said to me, 'We just want to help you be better at your job,'" says Bai, one of the rare journalists invited to speak at the convention. "It's like me walking into the emergency room and telling the doctor how to do a better job. Based on what?"
There's also a significant downside to the language used by many bloggers. They may not all resort to name-calling--whores, jerks, idiots--but many adopt a manner that is derisive and sweeping. Despite his self-pitying tone, New Republic editor Franklin Foer wasn't far off target when he wrote that conservatives "want to weaken the press so it will stop obstructing their agenda, a motive that liberal bloggers seem to have forgotten. By repeating conservative criticisms about the allegedly elitist, sycophantic, biased MSM, liberal bloggers have played straight into conservative hands. These bloggers have begun unwittingly doing conservatives' dirty work."
But others point out that the lesson of the Bush strategy of simply treating the press as irrelevant is that it actually worked, at least until reality--be it in the form of Katrina or the Iraq War--intruded. "I haven't convinced myself that progressives need to treat reporters with the same hostility, but being nice is not working," says Waldman. "And being hostile has been pretty effective for the right. So I think we need to take a close look at that."
The greatest challenge to the netroots role as would-be media reformers is their other function as a political "noise machine." Bloggers are most powerful when they are able to influence the very mainstream media they despise. As blogger Peter Daou (who now works for Hillary Clinton's campaign) pointed out, "Simply put, without the participation of the media and the political establishment, the netroots alone cannot generate the critical mass necessary to alter or create conventional wisdom."
Grabbing the media's attention can therefore also require playing to their endless appetite for sensationalism and confrontation. On a panel titled "The Culture of Journalism: Getting a Story 'Out There'"--a panel that Stoller, the moderator, jokingly described as "the blogger ethics panel"--John Aravosis described getting CNN and ABC to cover a story about privacy violations by taking Wesley Clark's cell phone records and putting them online without his permission. He explained the secret of his success by saying, "Press coverage isn't enough. You want a feeding frenzy. So it has to be either funny or shocking: a hooker or Watergate."
Stoller describes these actions as part of "working with the press," which he says "doesn't necessarily mean you are giving in to those values" or compromising your credibility. There is no doubt that an effective political strategy requires mastering the rules of the media game, flawed as they may be. But it's striking how the netroots filter all their actions through the prism of political gain. The top political blogs are consumed by the desire to win. Therefore, consciously or otherwise, media activism is valued more as a political strategy than as a means of reform. There seems to be little recognition among the netroots that progressives, unlike the right, are invested in the task of figuring out how to restore a badly battered press. As Rosen points out, the question for liberal bloggers who are most immediately concerned with scoring points for their side is why progressives or Democrats should support reporters in a fight with the Bush Administration if all they get in return is "balance." "That's where their beliefs as progressives are tested," he says.