TCS Daily

The Best Thing That Has Ever Happened to Journalism

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - March 4, 2005 12:00 AM

Bloggers are the best thing that has ever happened to journalism.

They make a good reporter look better. They expose the phonies, the poseurs, the fast-writing conmen, with the speed of light.

They give the journalist a greater access to more information and informational context than ever before.

They provide swift exposure to varied points of view, and, most importantly, a constant, sometimes rough, but always important gauge of a reporter's skill, judgment, industriousness and integrity.

Never before has weak reporting, biased reporting, dishonest reporting, or lazy reporting been more swiftly exposed.

Indeed, the whole idea of whether journalism is indeed a profession -- or just a happy combination of craft, curiosity, cleverness and confidence tricks -- is being tested for the first time out there in the ether.

As a semi-retired veteran of what we long ago called "the newspaper game," I find the whole advent of the blogs exhilarating. They have made the game more exciting and challenging than ever.

I'll try to put you through as little "my life in journalism" crap as possible -- enough to establish my, perhaps, shabby bona fides for "sharing" on this subject.

By the time I was in fifth grade I set my heart on being a reporter. I never heard the word "journalism" until I was in high school. Through a series of fortunate events I was able to work all my summers and college class breaks as a reporter for a daily newspaper -- The Greensburg Tribune-Review, in Western Pennsylvania.

By the time I graduated college with a bachelor's degree in English literature and as much history, language and other liberal arts as I could stuff into my curriculum, I had made my bones, so to speak, on the paper's night staff.

That meant I had done my share of stories about sewer bonds, city council races, courthouse politics, county fair prize pigs, Lions Club speeches, graduations, "tax hikes," "budget squabbles," auto accidents, fires, and floods. I had mastered that self-contained journalism school -- the obituary.

My wife and I were married on graduation day and our honeymoon consisted of driving to Connecticut where I began my first full-time job, as a reporter for the New Haven Register. From there, I went to The Philadelphia Inquirer; from there to Washington, D.C., and The National Observer, Dow-Jones' brave attempt at a national weekly newspaper.

I ended up in the Washington bureau of The Reader's Digest, writing on national and international affairs. Looking back on it all, I sure had a lot of fun. Too much fun for a small town boy, come to think of it. I loved it. I met famous people. I got shot at. I ate expense account lunches. I had to get a passport. I got to be a close-up witness to history. And I got paid for it.

What did I learn during more than 40 years in journalism?

It's easy to be a journalist.

It's hard to be a good journalist.

It's easy because you really don't have to pass professional muster like a lawyer or a doctor or an accountant. If you're curious, have reasonable intelligence and some aptitude for writing, there's nothing about the "mechanics" of the thing that you can't learn on the job in a matter of months.

It's hard to be a good journalist because, well, it's hard. You have to work hard to be honest to your readers, to the facts, to the difficulty of panning for truth in a torrent of information.

It's hard to go the extra mile for that final piece in the puzzle when you only have an hour to deadline. It's hard to turn the corner on some bright fact you "know" to be true and look down the other side of it and find that maybe it isn't true after all.

It's hard to develop a sense of where you are historically, philosophically and practically, so that you can report on an event with proper perspective. It's hard to present the complexities of an issue in a way that will make sense to the ordinary reader, but still pass the scrutiny of the experts.

It's hard, when overwhelmed by sudden events, to have the disciplined wisdom to wait out the storms of rumor until you can see reality.

It's precisely because good journalism is hard that I love bloggers.

They are always ready to pounce. Whether you're CBS News or the Daily Bugle, they will not let you get by on the cheap. They teach you by their native wisdom. They teach you by their ignorance.

They can be immensely unfair and incredibly stupid. They open up new vistas for you and force you to consider sometimes cockeyed perspectives that end up giving you more perspective.

They bring the world to a screen right in front of your eyes -- in all its uncouth, elegant, raw, funny, revolting, thoughtful, partisan, passionate, tedious, upsetting, amazing, predictable, biased, sordid, elemental, ethereal, exhaustive, cynical, hopeful, delightful, excruciating variety.

And they are providing a venue for some thoughtful, fresh, clever writers who otherwise might have taken a while to find their way into print.

Pompous journalists are disdainful of blogs because they feel threatened by them. They are like members of the Raccoon Lodge and the bloggers just barreled into the ritual room and tore open the curtains and they all look slightly ridiculous in their epaulets and tin pot hats and braided swallowtail coats.

Tonight, as I write this, I have been able to move with a mouse click from the ravings of Islamic militants to the thoughtful analysis of an Arab academic; from the anti-Iraq War propaganda on an ultra-liberal site to curt, irreverent, on-scene reports from soldiers who have been fighting in Anbar province.

Blogs introduce me to a much wider spectrum of writings on whatever subject I am pursuing than I would ever be able to run down on my own. They provide a particularly serendipitous quality to surfing. I would never have seen Sadik J. Al-Azm's fascinating dissection of Islamic terror and the Arab psyche if I had not stopped by theadventuresofchester and used his link.

When I want to get a tour d'horizon on foreign affairs I know that one of the best places to start is the superb Belmont Club. Thanks to the "redoubtable Wretchard" there, I not only read a sobering article on the Left's preoccupation with revenge against America ("The Berlin Wall's Revenge" by Nelson Ascher) but benefited from Wretchard's own thought-provoking observation on the "conceit" of the Left.

I have been able to follow the maunderings of the pseudo-Indian, "Little Big Man" Ward Churchill, on some hair-raisingly benighted "Native American" sites. On other blogs I have found links to scholarly papers thoroughly deracinating his whole bogus misuse of history.

The unmasking of "the li'l Injun that could" set me to thinking. Can you imagine what a job freewheeling bloggers would have done on Adolf Hitler as he was on his "way up?" A few newspapermen, scholars and politicians tried back then. But they didn't have the cojones or the perspective or the "dirt," or the marvelous "back channel" of the Internet to find it and get it out there.

Sure, you have to know what you're doing in this onrushing stream of Blogs. There's a lot of useless "noise" to filter out. But I have always felt that is the supreme test of the reporter anyway. Especially in an environment like Washington -- a world market of information -- you're kind of like a bear standing in the middle of a stream of salmon. The fishing's not hard. The challenge is being selective.

As blogs proliferate, the market is ruthless. If you can't be provocative, informative, or at least fun, you die. If you're dealing in phony crap, the electronic public catches on pretty fast. The visits disappear. I'm constantly pruning my "favorites" list. And adding to it, too.

In an hour, I can race through link after link of scholarly articles, position papers, news broadcast transcripts, weapons specifications, historical documents, statistics, informed and uninformed opinions, scraps of thoughts, bits of video, photographs, maps, animated schematics, you name it.

Blogs are not a substitute for the dogged, primary source reporting that still marks great journalism. But they bring a new efficiency to the "hunt," and enhance the journalist's reach and grasp of the world to a degree never before possible.

They are forcing the journalistic priesthood out of the temple. It's disconcerting. It's fun. And it's good, real good.


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