Matthew Haughey says he won't read our blogs if we use the term "mainstream media" (a.k.a. MSM).
A news flash for Matt: We don't care.
We don't care if you read our web logs.
The difference, Matt, is that we are independent actors, not part of a small set of multi-billion dollar corporations. The difference is that we are not under the constraints of making a 15% profit. The difference is that we are a distributed information system, whereas MSM is like a set of stand-alone mainframes. The difference is that we can say what we damn well please.
If we were the mainstream media (perhaps better thought of as corporate media), we would care if you threatened to stop reading us. Because although we might be professional news people, we would have the misfortune to be working for corporations that are mainly be about making money.
We would be ordered to try to avoid saying anything too controversial (and I don't mean "Crossfire" controversial), because we would be calculating what would bring in 15% profits per annum on our operating capital. Would hours and hours of television "reportage" and discussion of Michael Jackson or of Terri Schiavo or Scott Peterson (remember?) bring in viewers and advertising dollars? Then that is what we would be giving the public. Bread and circuses.
Would giving airtime to Iraq, where we Americans have 138,000 troops and are spending $300 billion that we don't have, be too depressing to bring in the audience and advertising and the 15% profit? Then we would dump it in favor of bread and circuses. We'd dump Afghanistan as a story even faster, since there are "only" 17,000 US troops in that country, and it is only a place where Ben Laden may be hiding out and from which the US was struck on 9/11, leaving 3,000 dead and the Pentagon and World Trade Center smouldering.
If we were the mainstream media as Ashley Banfield was, our careers would be over if we mentioned a little thing like the replacement of journalism with patriotism in the coverage of the Iraq War. Or if we said things like Ashley did of March-April 2003,
"You didn't see where those bullets landed. You didn't see what happened when the mortar landed. A puff of smoke is not what a mortar looks like when it explodes, believe me. There are horrors that were completely left out of this war. So was this journalism or was this coverage-? There is a grand difference between journalism and coverage, and getting access does not mean you're getting the story, it just means you're getting one more arm or leg of the story . . . I can't tell you how bad the civilian casualties were. I saw a couple of pictures. I saw French television pictures, I saw a few things here and there, but to truly understand what war is all about you've got to be on both sides. You've got to be a unilateral, someone who's able to cover from outside of both front lines, which, by the way, is the most dangerous way to cover a war, which is the way most of us covered Afghanistan. There were no front lines, they were all over the place. They were caves, they were mountains, they were cobbled, they were everything. But we really don't know from this latest adventure from the American military what this thing looked like and why perhaps we should never do it again. The other thing is that so many voices were silent in this war. We all know what happened to Susan Sarandon for speaking out, and her husband, and we all know that this is not the way Americans truly want to be. Free speech is a wonderful thing, it's what we fight for, but the minute it's unpalatable we fight against it for some reason."
If we were mainstream media we would be wholly owned subsidiaries of General Electric, the Disney Corporation, Time Warner, Rupert Murdoch, Viacom and so on and so forth. Ninety percent of cable channels are owned by the same companies that own the big television networks.
It isn't a matter of journalism being a business. How good journalism is when practiced in the service of a business depends on the owner's philosophy and economic goals. Ted Turner writes,
"When CNN reported to me, if we needed more money for Kosovo or Baghdad, we'd find it. If we had to bust the budget, we busted the budget. We put journalism first, and that's how we built CNN into something the world wanted to watch. I had the power to make these budget decisions because they were my companies. I was an independent entrepreneur who controlled the majority of the votes and could run my company for the long term. Top managers in these huge media conglomerates run their companies for the short term. After we sold Turner Broadcasting to Time Warner, we came under such earnings pressure that we had to cut our promotion budget every year at CNN to make our numbers. Media mega-mergers inevitably lead to an overemphasis on short-term earnings."
If we were the mainstream media, we would be accountable to CEOs and editors and advertisers, all of whom have motives for suppressing some pieces of news and highlighting others. You might think to yourself that this is a diverse enough group that the story would still get through. But with media consolidation, fewer and fewer persons make the decisions.
"These big companies are not antagonistic; they do billions of dollars in business with each other. They don't compete; they cooperate to inhibit competition. You and I have both felt the impact. I felt it in 1981, when CBS, NBC, and ABC all came together to try to keep CNN from covering the White House. You've felt the impact over the past two years, as you saw little news from ABC, CBS, NBC, MSNBC, Fox, or CNN on the FCC's actions. In early 2003, the Pew Research Center found that 72 percent of Americans had heard "nothing at all" about the proposed FCC rule changes. Why? One never knows for sure, but it must have been clear to news directors that the more they covered this issue, the harder it would be for their corporate bosses to get the policy result they wanted. A few media conglomerates now exercise a near-monopoly over television news. There is always a risk that news organizations can emphasize or ignore stories to serve their corporate purpose. But the risk is far greater when there are no independent competitors to air the side of the story the corporation wants to ignore. More consolidation has often meant more news-sharing. But closing bureaus and downsizing staff have more than economic consequences. A smaller press is less capable of holding our leaders accountable. When Viacom merged two news stations it owned in Los Angeles, reports The American Journalism Review, "field reporters began carrying microphones labeled KCBS on one side and KCAL on the other." This was no accident. As the Viacom executive in charge told The Los Angeles Business Journal: "In this duopoly, we should be able to control the news in the marketplace." This ability to control the news is especially worrisome when a large media organization is itself the subject of a news story. Disney's boss, after buying ABC in 1995, was quoted in LA Weekly as saying, "I would prefer ABC not cover Disney." A few days later, ABC killed a "20/20" story critical of the parent company."
Matt thinks it matters that he and other bloggers have been on television, or that mainstream media now maintains blogs. Neither thing matters. Blogs operate in a different political economy than does mainstream media. Bloggers' "editors" are the readers and the Daily Kos and Eschaton commentators who use collective intelligence to improve them. Their motive is not the profit motive for the most part. Most bloggers are hobbyists.
So, yes, Matt. There is a difference between these little dog and pony shows we post from our homes, with no editor, no CEO, no boss, and no resources beyond our personal experiences, talent and acumen. If Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo was published by mainstream media, would he still be allowed to say everything he now says? Would Tom Engelhardt be allowed to discuss the ways in which the Iraq quagmire suggests the limits of superpowerdom if he were working for the Big Six? If Bill Montgomery worked for The Weather Channel, would he be allowed to criticize Senator Rick Sanatarium for trying to keep Federal forecasters from "competing" with private weather forecasting companies? Would Riverbend be allowed to be so incisive if she worked for a big Iraqi computer firm? Remember the famous question, "Can blogging get you fired?"
And this difference, my friends, accounts for why bloggers get vilified. Journalists can be switched to another story, or fired, or their stories can be buried on page 36. We can't be fired. So if Martin Peretz doesn't like what we have to say, he will publish a hatchet job on us in The New Republic, seeking to make us taboo. If you can't shut people up, and you really don't want their voices heard, then all you can do is try to persuade others not to listen to them or give them a platform. The easiest way to do this is to falsely accuse them of racism or Communism some other character flaw unacceptable to polite society. Because of the distributed character of blogging "computing," however, such tactics are probably doomed to fail.
We are not the mainstream media, and we are here. Get used to it.
© 2005 Juan Cole