“Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important than they all.” –Thomas Carlyle
And that right there is a perfect example of why journalists — taking the herd as a whole — elicit so little in the way of sympathy from their otherwise not unfeeling countrymen. Not only are they every bit as bursting with self-regard as the typical man, but they happen to write about it all the time, too.
Now, there’s nothing terribly wrong with pretending your work is noteworthy. It’s a perfectly forgivable vanity and, beyond that, probably essential to maintaining whatever sort of morale it takes to willingly suffer a cubicle for 40-plus hours a week. Most of us, after all, boast fairly deep reserves of self-importance. Unless, though, you happen to be stuck with him at a bar or in an elevator or at a dinner party, the average fellow doesn’t get much chance to inflict his upon you. Provided you steer clear of their trade journals, you’ll probably never fully appreciate the richness and texture that human resource specialists or polymer scientists or refrigerated grocers bring to our lives.
Not so, however, with the press. A megaphone stapled eternally to their lip, even the least of the scribbling class’ concerns are batted about with an intensity that borders on the sociopathic. Yes, Jayson Blair was a colossal fraud, but did we really need half a year of hand-wringing about it? Businessmen swindle by the thousands without inspiring even a smidgen of the national soul-searching seemingly necessitated by the lies of one young cokehead at the New York Times. The lack of perspective tends to weary. Now, add to this already fairly heady brew of self-absorption the inevitable errors, the interminable bias claims and the sort of arrogance it takes for a person to demand their own federal shield law, and suddenly
it’s not so difficult to understand why the traditional media has been taking it pretty hard of late.
There’s nothing like a spin around the old blogosphere, though, to make a person want to reconsider. Because, whatever strange pathologies one finds flowering in the mainstream press, be assured, they pale in comparison to the curious and grotesque blooms billowing about online.
Now, before we go on, allow me to offer a brief, and, if past history is any indication, hopelessly naïve disclaimer: I’m all for blogs. Love ‘em. Read ‘em every day. Don’t know what I’d do without ‘em. Have no idea how people made it through the workday before the things. To the extent there are sides here (and, while there probably shouldn’t be, at the moment, there still are) I’m with the blogs.
Somewhere along the line, though — and were I pressed to get more precise, I’d probably trace much of it back to the days of Rathergate (also known as CBS News’ botch of the Bush National Guard story) — the whole business turned unbearably tedious.
Take, for instance, the blogosphere’s preferred term for its traditional press counterparts — the mainstream media, or, in the too-cute-by-half formulation favored by many: the “MSM.” Innocuous enough, perhaps, but somehow, it always seems to be typed with a sneer. Beyond the sneering, though, is the fact that, once you’ve labeled something, you can attribute qualities and behaviors to it. It paves the way for a sort of aggregating that can be quite handy. When Judith Miller flubs the WMD story, it’s not just the fault of a Times reporter and her editor, it’s a failure of the “MSM.” When a newspaper columnist half-asses 800 words about the Internet, it’s not just one guy kicking something out ahead of a deadline, it’s a piece indicative of the attitude of the “MSM” as a whole. And so the debate is further codified as “us vs. them,” and everyone’s old resentments are kept warm and ready for use.
More than just terminology, though, there’s the matter of tone. If there’s currently an expression floating around more obnoxious than Instapundit’s “Heh,” I’ve yet to come across it. With a single syllable the man manages to capture the sense of smug self-satisfaction that’s come to pervade the blogosphere — the sly pleasure of a self-consciously smart junior high kid who’s caught his teacher in a mistake.
Then there’s the medium’s more sanctimonious side, the more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger stylings perfected by BuzzMachine.com proprietor Jeff Jarvis. Among other things, Entertainment Weekly’s founder and the former Sunday editor at the New York Daily News, Jarvis can usually be found at the keyboard shaking his head sadly at the lost little old media sheep and discussing the new “Citizen’s Media” in tones of breathless delight. He seems to mean well, and, hell, might even be right, but lord can he beat a man down with the earnestness. He’s the sort of guy who would (and, in fact, recently did) respond to a Glenn Reynolds remark about readers feeling too entitled to comment on blog posts with the line, “Entitlement? No, I’d call it enlightenment.” His faith in the body public is touching, but it tends to grate over the long haul.
And of course there are your more vigorous participants. Your Atrios and your Kos and your Power Lines and Malkins and Little Green Footballs — your merchants of outrage, if you will. More noteworthy than the outrage, though, is the unyielding self-assurance — the sense a person gets after a few stops by that, not only are the sites’ proprietors right, but that they have always been right, always will be right in the future, and could easily enough lead us all to the promised land provided that the rest of the mouth-breathing hordes would only get in line. It’s almost thrilling in its way, witnessing confidence of a sort that would make Gore Vidal blush, but it tends to sound a bit shrill after a while, like cicadas, or a gaggle of 13 year olds in a subway car.
There are, of course, plenty of bloggers who come across as perfectly pleasant, perhaps even charming, sorts. Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum, Ross Douthat, Noah Millman, Matt Yglesias, even crazy old Andrew Sullivan when he’s not busy running down nefarious Fifth Columns. All the same, though, of the 27-or-so-million blogs currently out there, a shockingly high number seem designed to make a man’s eyes bleed. In just a few short years the medium has turned from a province of whimsical amateurism to a game ranch stacked with semi-pro blowhards.
It took old media over 500 years, from the advent of the printing press on down through to the present day to produce so magnificent a bore as, say, Frank Rich. In under a decade the blogosphere has managed to match them. This impresses even as it horrifies. We the people have found our voice, and Christ if we aren’t some tiresome bastards.