Thursday, June 14, 2012

'Real Reporting' versus Mere Blogging: Juan Williams Asserts a Class Distinction

While driving home yesterday, I was tuned into the XM radio broadcast of the ‘Sean Hannity Show’.  Now, I am not a particular fan of Mr Hannity – I find his style too strident – but I listen if trapped in traffic, particularly if a guest or topic strikes my fancy.

Juan Williams

As I tuned in, the discussion was already underway, involving Juan Williams and Michelle Malkin, and involved the recent series of significant leaks about US intelligence operations, with the reporters citing sources from within the Obama administration.  Obama himself denies that this is the case.  As a distraction, Democrats have attempted to conflate these revelations with the Valerie Plame ‘outing’ during the Bush administration.  (And to what end?  Even if there is a connection, would it cancel out these breaches in our national security and make them all right?)  But Mr Hannity and Mrs Malkin rightly demurred that the difference between the two situations was of several magnitudes.  Williams tried to argue the point and the discussion became hung up on the old question of whether Plame was ‘covert’ (though he would be more credible if he could use her correct name, not ‘Flame’).  Williams cited the Special Counsel, Patrick Fitzgerald, who states that she was – but Victoria Toensing, who wrote the law in the matter, declared that Plame was not, and I fully agree.  Malkin does a fairly good job of trying to bring the story back to the original topic, and the discussion, not surprisingly, becomes rather heated.

This is a story being hashed out in other media sources, if you can find another source that is reasonably ‘fair and balanced’.  But the otherwise newsworthy item of the piece comes at the 5:32 point, when Williams declares that he is “a real reporter, not a blogger out in the blogosphere or somewhere”, in unspoken contrast to Malkin, a professional blogger.  At that point, the discussion shifts into higher gear, and rightly so.

The main stream media – the MSM – or the ‘legacy media’, has been losing subscribers and viewers hand over fist for years now, as talk radio and then the internet have become available to the general public, reflecting a market-driven economy for news and commentary instead of the establishment version of “all the news that’s fit to print”, as processed through a liberal filter.  One of the arguments from these besieged ivory towers is how professional journalists are so much better than bloggers, an attitude famously exemplified by former CBS news executive vice president Jonathan Klein in 2004:  “You couldn't have a starker contrast between the multiple layers of checks and balances at 60 Minutes and a guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas.”

This is the same CBS 60 Minutes that gave us Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes, among others, who insisted until the bitter end that the forged documents in the Bush National Guard hoax of September 2008 (not quite an October Surprise, but close) were real, despite the bloggers who immediately exposed the documents as fraudulent.

It is attitudes and many comments such as Mr Klein’s that have given rise to outlets such as Pajamas (now PJ) Media, and the many references to pajamas among them, in true Yankee Doodle fashion.

For what exactly is a professional journalist?  What particular skill set do they possess that is unavailable to anyone who can write clearly and investigate stories?  Are they certified by some Professional Journalism Society?  They have a college degree in journalism, as opposed to say, English, history, or marketing?  A journalist, it would seem, is whomever is hired into and survives within the protective confines of a monochrome ideology of those who know better, a mutual admiration society who exemplify the words of the famous newspaperman A J Liebling: "I take a grave view of the press.  It is the weak slat under the bed of democracy."

Many bloggers live in the real world, have a developed sense of reality, and are adept at certain professional skills so that they actually know what they are talking about.  Unlike New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael, who in 1972 infamously said, "I live in a rather special world.  I only know one person who voted for Nixon.  Where they are I don't know.  They're outside my ken.  But sometimes when I'm in a theater I can feel them."

I have thus taken to heart the principle of the late Michael Crichton, who formulated what he called the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, after his friend with whom he was discussing the idea over coffee:
Media carries with it a credibility that is totally undeserved.  You have all experienced this, in what I call the Murray Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.  (I refer to it by this name because I once discussed it with Murray Gell-Mann, and by dropping a famous name I imply greater importance to myself, and to the effect, than it would otherwise have.)

Briefly stated, the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect is as follows.  You open the newspaper to an article on some subject you know well.  In Murray's case, physics.  In mine, show business.  You read the article and see the journalist has absolutely no understanding of either the facts or the issues. Often, the article is so wrong it actually presents the story backward – reversing cause and effect.  I call these the "wet streets cause rain" stories.  Paper's full of them.

In any case, you read with exasperation or amusement the multiple errors in a story, and then turn the page to national or international affairs, and read as if the rest of the newspaper was somehow more accurate about Palestine than the baloney you just read.  You turn the page, and forget what you know.

That is the Gell-Mann Amnesia effect.  I'd point out it does not operate in other arenas of life.  In ordinary life, if somebody consistently exaggerates or lies to you, you soon discount everything they say.  In court, there is the legal doctrine of falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus, which means untruthful in one part, untruthful in all.  But when it comes to the media, we believe against evidence that it is probably worth our time to read other parts of the paper.  When, in fact, it almost certainly isn't.
Are there bloggers who violate the tenets of good reporting?  Yes indeed, just as there are reporters and editors who are blithely ignorant of their position on topics, or worse yet, who deliberately set out to mold public opinion in what they want to cast as news, outside the opinion and commentary pages.  But Juan Williams’ haughty dismissal of all bloggers betrays a (yes, let’s say it) bigoted class attitude in its sweeping conclusion and defensive obstinance.  It is beneath him.  And this is from someone who, despite our frequently diverse views, genuinely respects his comments as adding a sincere, fair and balanced approach to an argument.

But this also is a call to those bloggers to keep chipping away at another Liebling quote, quite true when he said it but rendered increasing anachronistic by this new technology of the internet: “Freedom of the press is guaranteed only to those who own one.”

Update:  More comment from John Nolte at
It doesn't take some fancy, over-priced brainwashing re-education camp like Columbia to make someone a reporter.  All it takes is a desire to root out truth and the grit to hold that truth up for all to see.


  1. Although I would argue with just how liberal the MSM are absolutely spot on with the demise of legacy media.

    I really do get more of my news from blogs than MSM outlets, if only for the fact that they tend to link to primary sources, and don't generally construct a facade of trying to present 'both sides' for drama and ratings.

  2. I heard that swipe by Juan at Michelle Malkin too and was very surprised that he said it. I guess Michelle got under his skin.

    There is a real difference between bloggers and journalists. In today's world many journalists are willing to cover up and ignore the Obama scandals while bloggers can be counted on to get the information out.

    Without bloggers to hold journalists feet to the fire Juan's fellow journalists would simply go about covering up for Obama.

    1. Andrew Breitbart, when addressing a crowd, would often tell them to take out their cell phones & hold them aloft. Then he would say, "You're all journalists now."


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