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Outside Voices: Jonathan Last Looks For Peace Between Blogs And The "MSM"

Each week we invite someone from the outside to weigh in with their thoughts about CBS News and the media at large. This week, we invited Jonathan Last, online editor for the Weekly Standard, contributor to Galley Slaves and sometime critic of CBS News. (Note: this was written in advance of the Meyer-Hewitt exchange below). As always, the opinions expressed in "Outside Voices" are those of the author, not ours and we seek a wide variety of voices. Now, on to Jonathan:

Dick Meyer recently let loose a rant about the difficulties of finding and reporting mere facts. As a guy who has worked in the business for a long while, Meyer understands -- better than most -- how difficult a job this can be and he suggests (my words here, not his) that the blogosphere can't make a serious case against journalism until it acknowledges the intrinsic good of the mainstream media.

My only gripe with Meyer is that he didn't go far enough.

Let's stipulate to a few things:

* The blogosphere can and does perform a fine service to our culture, particularly when it acts as a supra fact checker (or, in web terms, a journalistic wiki). For instance, Patrick Ruffini points to a good example of this function concerning a recent Washington Post story, which identified a woman named Patrice Cuddy as a "novice" anti-war protestor. Blogger Matt Rustler did some digging and discovered that Ms. Cuddy gave up her amateur status years ago. Because the Post now links to blog posts about their stories, Rustler's reporting is cheek-by-jowl with the Post's. That's good news for all of us.

* There are lots of bad journalists. (Never mind that the ratio of good journalists to bad journalists is probably higher than the ratio of good bloggers to bad bloggers.) But to understand the cardinality of journalism, think of the world of film criticism.

There are lots of bad movie critics writing for backwater papers like the Saginaw Times-Tribune. These guys show up at a press junket, gorge themselves on food, and dash off whatever the publicists tell them to write. You or I might look at them with disdain and think that we could do their job better than they can. But that doesn't mean that film criticism as a profession is bankrupt. Look up the food chain and you'll find critics like Anthony Lane (the New Yorker) and Todd McCarthy (Variety) and Stephen Hunter (the Washington Post). These guys are professionals for a reason: They're better than you. And when practiced the way they do it, film criticism is valuable.

The mainstream media is the film critic world writ large.

For every hack reporter bloggers jump on, there's a great reporter who is single-handedly contributing more to journalism than the entire blogosphere combined. Don't believe me? Read Michael Dobbs at the Washington Post, Charlie LeDuff at the New York Times, Grann, Lehmann, Paumgarten, Auletta, or Baum at the New Yorker, Christine Rosen at the New Atlantis, or my colleagues Matt Labash and Andrew Ferguson at the Weekly Standard. These writers are the "MSM," too.

(By the way, you don't have to go to a glamour pub to find reporters who can knock it out of the park. Read this USA Today blockbuster on how the FAA landed 4,500 planes in four hours on September 11, 2001 and then think about how many bloggers could have put that story together.)

None of this is meant to denigrate the blogosphere, but merely to point out why it's wrong to crusade against the "MSM" as an institution. Bad stories and bum reporters absolutely must be called to account. But to believe that the entire structure should be torn down is madness. As the blog Classical Values puts it, "even if the blogosphere consisted entirely of raving right wing news parasites, it is not in the interest of any parasite to have its host die."

Which leads us to an uncomfortable truth about blogging. The blog carries enormous potential for three reasons: (1) It eliminates the barrier to entry for journalism; (2) It restores the supremacy of the printed word over broadcast media; (3) It allows the possibility to get first-hand, eye-witness reporting from almost anywhere at an instant.

But in order to make good on this promise, practitioners of the New Media will have to study and learn from the greats in the Old Media. In other words, bloggers should aspire to be as good as the best of the dreaded "MSM." A few bloggers, such as Michael Yon intuitively understand this. Most do not.

In many ways -- such as this blog, for instance -- the Old Media is making peace with the blogosphere. If the blogosphere is going to advance, and not devolve into an echo chamber of "Heh. Indeed.", eventually it'll have to make its peace with the mainstream media, too.