TCS Daily

Here I Blog, I Can Do No Other

By Douglas Kern - October 5, 2004 12:00 AM

Buoyed by the ascendancy of a new information technology, a revolution against the mainstream media (MSM) is underway. What began as a modest effort to reform the excesses of the MSM evolves into a total rejection of the MSM's right to mediate and interpret the truth. Bewildered by its huge loss of prestige, and embarrassed by its increasingly obvious shortcomings, the MSM alternately dismisses the revolution and lashes out against it. Slowly but inevitably, a new understanding emerges. Lay people realize that they have both the ability and the duty to find the truth on their own, free from the biases of a corrupt and self-serving institution. As the unrivalled authority of the MSM has collapsed, the MSM must curb its excesses and return to its primitive purity -- or collapse under the weight of its arrogance.

We're talking about 2004, the Internet, the blogosphere, and the big news reporting agencies, right?

Wrong. We're talking about the sixteenth century, the printing press, the first Protestants, and the Roman Catholic Church.

Five hundred years ago, the Catholic Church was the big four networks, CNN, the New York Times, and NPR all rolled into one. To its adherents, the Roman Catholic Church was the only authoritative source of truth about the world. In a Europe populated largely by illiterate, ill-traveled peasants, who could contest the Church's interpretation of anything?

Then as now, a monopoly on information and public narratives leads to abuses. Reporters distort truth for partisan gain, just as clerics distorted theology for personal profit. The lust for big ratings (and the ensuing lucrative commercial deals) leads to sensationalized stories; the lust for big donations led to sensationalized claims for plenary indulgences. Greed and arrogance are the eternal opponents of truth.

Then as now, a new technology gives ordinary people unmediated access to the truth. The Western invention of the printing press in the late fifteenth century and the subsequent dissemination of Bibles written in the vernacular gave lay believers the opportunity to read holy writ and draw their own conclusions about it -- just as the Internet gives ordinary people direct access to facts, information, and commentary. The Gutenberg Bible was the first hyperlink.

Then as now, professional intermediaries -- be they priests or editors -- complain that morlocks in pajamas couldn't be trusted to get "the story" right. And, then as now, morlocks in pajamas apply their intelligence and life experiences to undermine the authority of the intermediary class. When Martin Luther posted his blog on the Wittenberg door, he fact-checked Catholic theology against the text of scripture. He proved to the satisfaction of many that the typeface of the Purgatory doctrine was suspect, and that the kerning of faith vs. works was clearly a product of PopeSoft 1500's default settings.

It just goes to show: when assessing the truth of anything, you must be sure to check the Kern of it.

During Rathergate and Purgatorygate, the MSM excommunicated the heretics for the crime of out-interpreting the interpreters. The blogosphere accomplished more check-the-facts, feet-on-the-ground, hit-the-books journalism during Rathergate than did any other media outlet. The CBS definition of fact-checking consisted of 1) the ambiguous assessments of four ludicrously under-qualified "experts;" 2) the assurances of two dishonest partisan nutballs, and 3) the journalistic instincts of one doddering news anchor whose world view is locked in his own private Groundhog Day, circa 1974. By contrast, the blogosphere consulted hordes of typeface experts, former Texas National Guard clerks, and professional document assessors in a matter of hours. Similarly, the first Protestants invoked the authority of scripture itself in refuting Roman theology -- disdaining the tortuous logic and unproven facts of the symbol-wielding class in favor of direct interpretation of the truth. Then as now, God helped those who helped themselves.

It's true that Internet news commentary and analysis is awash in the ravings of moonbats and the shoot-from-the-hip spontaneity of bloggers -- just as it's true that individualistic theology empowers solipsism, botched translations, and the Unreformed Church of Me, Me, Me. But these "weaknesses" are transparent. When you want to know a blogger's gut reaction to the latest development, you don't need to decode blogger news releases or scramble for scraps of gossip culled from the off-the-record remarks of unnamed blogger producers -- you just check the website. Similarly, you don't need a degree in canon law when you're deriving your theology from sola scriptura -- you just need literacy. And while that theology might be stupid, its errors won't require a PhD to expose.

If the MSM displayed its opinions and biases as completely as the blogs, it wouldn't affect so superior a tone. Had we seen Mary Mapes wearing a paper hat made of Kerry press releases and clapping her hands over the Rather memos while giggling "Bush lied, people died, memos gonna fly, Bush gonna FRY!" then the snide remarks about pajamas might subside. On the 'net, the scope of a blogger's wingnuttery is just a Google search away. Can the MSM say the same?

In the future there will be no "paper of record," no "America's most trusted news source," no conveniently anonymous editorial boards to shape the political discourse. The MSM excels at the gathering of information, but information is not synonymous with news. Information is data. News is a story. And it doesn't take a clerical collar or a journalism degree to tell a compelling story. On the net, every man is his own editor -- just as, in Protestantism, every man is his own priest.

Protestantism didn't destroy Catholicism, and the blogosphere will not destroy the MSM. A need will always exist for news and analysis written from a centrist position that aspires to be fair to the major political parties and positions. One day, the MSM might even fill that role. Perhaps the rise of the blogosphere will ignite an MSM Counter-Reformation, akin to the Counter-Reformation that Protestantism engendered in Catholicism. Perhaps the MSM will imitate the strengths of the blogosphere -- its intellectual diversity, its relentless self-criticism, and its lively, brawling style. Or perhaps the MSM will insist on its cultural superiority as it fades into oblivion. Low network news ratings, diminished newspaper sales, fading profits -- the writing is on the wall, and the MSM has been fisked on the scales and found wanting. But if Catholicism could curb simony, absentee bishops, and corrupt papal appointments, perhaps the MSM can curb lazy partisanship, sloppy reporting, and Dan Rather.

(Say, does that make Dan Rather's historical analogue Rodrigo Borgia? Or Pope Joan?)

The Protestant Reformation opened the door to an efflorescence of individualist thought and achievement, even as the Counter-Reformation made the Catholic Church a holier, more honest, and more Christian institution. Internet commentators may do the same to the MSM. But for now, expect more recriminations, more crusades against heresy, and more combat over control of the truth. Be not afraid! The e-blood of the cyber-martyrs is the seed of the future media church.

The author is a TCS contributor. He recently wrote about the emergence of a new Screwtape letter.


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