In November 2007, Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein wrote a piece for the magazine chastising House Democrats for wording in their version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. Not long after the column hit the web, Salon columnist Glenn Greenwald wrote a piece arguing that “for the sake of its own credibility, Time Magazine needs immediately to prohibit Joe Klein from uttering another word about the eavesdropping and FISA controversy. He simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about and he publishes demonstrably false statements.”
Greenwald, who worked in Constitutional and civil rights law before coming to Salon, went on to provide evidence that many of Klein’s claims about the bill were not reflected in the actual language. The Salon column led to hundreds of emails and phone calls to Time demanding that the magazine issue a correction. Eventually, Klein decided to respond to the criticisms on his blog, using rhetoric that quickly resulted in more criticism from Greenwald and other bloggers and even more angry emails to Time editors. Within days, Time ran a correction on the story, both on the web and in the print edition.
“In the original version of this story, Joe Klein wrote that the House Democratic version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) would require a court approval of individual foreign surveillance targets,” the web correction read. “The bill does not explicitly say that. Republicans believe it can be interpreted that way, but Democrats don’t.”
But you can’t help but wonder: If Greenwald and dozens of other high profile bloggers hadn’t rallied hundreds of their readers to write to Time, would the correction have been printed? In other words, if that column had been published in 1997 instead of 2007, would the misinformation have remained untouched?
Media criticism before blogs
Christopher Harper, an associate professor at Temple University’s Department of Journalism, might agree with this notion. He recently wrote a paper titled, “Media Criticism: The Role of the World Wide Web and the Blogosphere,” in which he argued that both during and before the rise of online media, mainstream news outlets have invested very little in journalism and media criticism. In previous decades, other than a few outliers (the Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz, the New York Times’ David Carr, the Columbia Journalism Review), most media criticism, what little existed, was found in alternative weeklies. But because of the growing popularity of blogging and the introduction of online-only news organizations like Slate, Salon and Huffington Post (Harper said that these latter three are big enough to be considered “legacy media”), media criticism has flourished on the web.
“This rapid expansion of media criticism has enabled a variety of important changes in the way mainstream media companies have come under scrutiny, although it is still unclear what long-term implications this trend will have,” the paper argues.
As part of his research, Harper conducted interviews with eight media critics (all academics, mainstream journalists, or bloggers) — Ken Auletta of The New Yorker, David Carr of The New York Times, Howard Kurtz of The Washington Post and CNN, Jack Shafer of Slate, Michael Calderone of Politico, Glenn Greenwald of Salon, Jay Rosen of New York University, and Dan Kennedy of Northeastern University.
In their interviews, all but the Times’ Carr rated media criticism as significantly important. Carr said that because of the current economic hardships for news outlets, “the traditional role of church lady overseeing various transgressions seems to have lost some salience.” He also seemed lukewarm about the role of the blogosphere in press criticism, claiming that much of its analysis is done through an ideological lens rather than by objectively applying the rules and conventions of journalism.
A new brand of critique
But in a phone conversation, Harper said he didn’t consider the ideology or the lack of convention to be necessarily a bad thing.
“I think it’s perfectly fine that they have questions about the way that we do things,” he said of bloggers. “We write about doctors and we’re not doctors. We write about scientists and we’re not scientists. I think it’s legitimate for people who don’t necessarily have journalistic training to criticize the techniques of journalism. They might be wrong in their analysis, but I think that any traditional technique of gathering information or journalistic practice is certainly open to criticism. It doesn’t mean that criticism is necessarily valid, but I think it’s great that they question the things that we do.”
Harper said he is part of a small percentage of journalists and academics that believes that the terms “fair and balanced” and “objectivity” are nonsense and that he appreciates the European model of journalism where a journalist weaves the facts into his own personal analysis of the issue in such a way that you don’t have to “parse the nuances of what biases the reporter has. All reporters have biases.” One of the great things about the blogosphere, he said, is that there is very little notion of “fair and balanced.”
Salon’s Greenwald agreed that media criticism has expanded with the rise of online media, not only in terms of volume, but also in scope of coverage.
“I actually think that the kind of so-called media criticism that existed prior to the advent of blogging media criticism, the kind from established media outlets now, like Howard Kurtz, was a much different kind of media criticism than the kind that you’d find typically on blogs,” he told me. “It’s a much narrower and limited kind of criticism, by which I mean there are certain rules and conventions that established journalism assumes to be valid, and typically media critics in the established media patently assume the validity of those rules, and their criticisms are confined to these kinds of petty and narrow instances of how media figures somehow transgress these limits.”
From Blogspot to Salon
Greenwald first began blogging on a simple Blogspot account and, after publishing a New York Times bestselling book, was approached by editors at Salon and offered a job to write at the site. As his readership and prominence continues to grow, he has seen that his media criticism has more and more of an effect. A few years ago, for instance, Greenwald criticized the New York Times for adopting the language of the Bush Administration by calling all Iraqi insurgents “al-Qaida” without substantiating whether they were part of the terrorist organization. The revelation and the subsequent complaint letters to the Times led its opinion editor to write a piece scolding the newspaper specifically for this issue.
After Greenwald criticized Keith Olbermann in a column, the MSNBC anchor defended himself on his Daily Kos diary. In January of 2008, Greenwald reprinted an angry email from CNN’s John King, who was responding to the Salon blogger’s complaints about King’s interview with then-presidential candidate John McCain.
“The way that I think the individual blogging media critics have the biggest impact is by targeting specific journalists,” Greenwald told me. “And through the force of one’s readers and the ability to make a big splash, kind of shame them into avoiding certain behaviors. So if a certain journalist gets a lot of negative coverage for a particular practice, the next time they go to engage in it, they think twice about it, because they know that they suffered lots of criticism. Sometimes shame and humiliation deters them from doing bad things in the future.”
One of Greenwald’s consistent tactics when engaging with columnists and journalists is what I call the “Lexus Nexus approach,” in that he’ll often comb through and find a quote from a columnist made a decade ago and show how a recent column from the same person completely contradicts that earlier quote. He said that the ease of doing this online is part of the reason why press criticism has flourished so well in the blogosphere.
“I think that’s been a huge asset of the ability of blogs to impose accountability on what journalists write,” he explained “The ease with which one can do that is a result of information technology that enables huge amounts of information to be sorted through and examined extremlely quickly. One person sitting at home now can easily fact check reporters and columnists, not only to demonstrate that they have said things that are the complete opposite of what they’re saying today, but also to do the research to show what they’re saying is false.”
Exposing Obama Bias
Matt Sheffield, executive editor of Newsbusters, a site focused on “documenting, exposing and neutralizing liberal media bias,” said that the media criticism coming from the mainstream media is often tepid and lacks a certain edge. In many ways, he explained, in order for a reporter to stay on a beat he can’t bite the hand that feeds him.
“I think there has been some positive change in the way things are done,” he told me. “There’s more discourse than there used to be. But on the other hand, during the 2008 campaign, most of the media elites made no bones about the fact that they were in the tank for Barack Obama, and that was eminently clear by the White House correspondents dinner they had recently where there was basically no criticism of Obama, which is a significant departure from the way those things are supposed to be.”
Sheffield said there were plenty of instances in which Newsbusters’ criticism has had a profound effect on how the public perceives mainstream media coverage. He pointed to the site’s work highlighting MSNBC host Chris Matthews’ “thrill up my leg” comment about Obama, a phrase that almost immediately entered the political lexicon and was cited frequently by pundits wanting to prove liberal bias at the cable news outlet.
But if these blogs and online news outlets have been able to amass so much reader interest in media criticism, why hasn’t the traditional media invested more time and energy into it? I posed this question to Harper.
“We in the media don’t like to be criticized,” he replied. “And if we don’t criticize some other news organization, then that news organization isn’t going to criticize us. I remember when I worked at ABC News and Newsweek, we’d get letters of complaints and we’d crumple them up and throw them in the waste paper basket. We were complete jerks. We were unresponsive to criticism. We were unresponsive to the public, we were all powerful. We were the gatekeepers.”
Unfortunately for those news organizations, however, over the last few years the gates have come crashing down. Here comes the crowd, and in many instances, they’re not very happy and they have cheap global distribution for their thoughts. And you won’t like them when they’re angry.
Simon Owens is a former newspaper journalist and an associate editor for MediaShift. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.