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Hoisted from the Archives: Hoisted from Comments: The Net Does Not Need "the News"

The Net Definitely Does Not Need "the News"

Hoisted from Comments: Maynard Handley:

What Kind of News Does the Net Need?: From Crooked Timber 5 years ago. Nothing has changed since then, and the organizations involved are no more self-aware than they were in 2006.

Reporters are not expected to report the facts. They report “the news” – that is, transitory events. Underlying trends and conditions are not “news,” unless some event – the release of a report, a parliamentary hearing – makes them so. In Western countries, the press takes its cues for what is “news” primarily from the government and the opposition, with a few additional sources for specialized reporting—notably large corporations and the entertainment industry. Other than events prompted by these cues, only a large number of deaths—as in a riot, a natural disaster, a plane crash, or a terrorist attack—or a remarkable death—as in a gruesome murder—will qualify an event as “news.”


Since they need to report something, the reporters must take their cues from somewhere. That somewhere is from the Western press itself, which they continue to read. This gives us a self-referential loop, in which Western political activity as reported in the press generates the cues taken up by reporters and guides their reporting. They also take cues from good visuals- demonstrations, riots, gun battles, and the like. The only way that the reporter can put these visuals into understandable context is the use the shared context that the reporter and the readership already understand – the “dominant representation.”

It would certainly be possible for news organizations to hire and train reporters who can actually report something useful from these countries. But to do so would mean that they would have to learn to do something other than report “the news.”

Indeed. The punchline is that the net definitely does not need "the news"--as newspapers envision their "regular" reporting-based news-gathering structure. If you want to know what is going on in any issue area, do you go looking for a reporter or for a subject-matter expert with a weblog?

For example... courtesy of Billmon... Here we have the Washington Post's Tom Ricks writing in 2003:

Tom Ricks Unleashed (Media Criticism Department): Senior U.S. commanders here are so confident about their recent successes that they have begun debating whether victory is in sight. "I think we're at the hump" now, a senior Central Command official said. "I think we could be over the hump fairly quickly" -- possibly within a couple of months, he added...

But in 2006 Tom Ricks said that what the generals had told him in 2003 was not true: there was:

strong evidence, based on a review of thousands of military documents and hundreds of interviews with military personnel, that the U.S. approach to pacifying Iraq in the months after the collapse of [Saddam] Hussein['s regime] helped spur the insurgency and made it bigger and stronger than it might have been...

When asked why he hadn't told his readers that what the generals said was not true, he said:

part of my job is to quote people accurately--even if I don't agree with what they are saying. Next!...

The natural conclusion you draw on hearing this is that Tom Ricks the Washington Post reporter is not somebody you read to figure out what is going on. Why not? thinks that his job is to "quote people accurately" even if he thinks that they are trying to mislead his readers. He doesn't think that his job is "informing his readers", or even "finding truth-tellers and quoting them accurately."

Now, of course, Tom Ricks is no longer a reporter. Instead, he is a weblogger for Foreign Policy, where he writes things like:

Tuesday announcement: Dempsey to CJCS, Odierno to Army chief of staff: Dempsey as chairman of the Joint Chiefs and Odierno as chief of staff of the Army, the vice chief of the Army, I am told, likely will be Lloyd Austin. Apparently the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs will be Adm. James Winnefeld. This means that the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the chief of the Army, and the chief of the CIA all will be people who commanded Army divisions in Iraq during that horrible first year, 2003-2004, which I found harder than subsequent years because I never expected the leadership of the United States military and government to screw it up so badly. (Dempsey had 1st Armored Division, Odierno had 4th Infantry Division, and Petraeus had 101st Airborne Division. Makes me want to dig out my notes for Fiasco of the logs of commanders' meetings from that year)...

General Dempsey vs. torture: [A] strong point in [Dempsey's] favor is that he has an ethical compass, as was demonstrated by this incident that occurred while he was commanding the 1st Armored Division during a particularly difficult time in Iraq. Several other senior commanders failed to make the choice he did.... "In August 2003, LTG Sanchez's Combined Joint Task Force-7 (CJTF-7) headquarters in Baghdad sent an infamous email to all units that participated in interrogation operations, now known as "the gloves are coming off" communication.... [Major] Hoepner told CJTF-7 and his fellow-intelligence warriors that it was time to "take a deep breath and remember who we are," reminding all hands of the U.S. Army's core values and its long tradition of staying "on the high ground." In taking this position, Hoepner and Mixon were supported by Division Commander, MG Martin Dempsey, who, to his everlasting credit, told his troops, "As you've heard me say before, we must remember who we are. Our example is what will cause us to prevail in this environment, not our weapons. I really believe that. We need to show the Iraqi people what 'right' looks like.""

Ricks the weblogger is a very smart substance-matter expert telling us what he thinks is going on. That's a big improvement.