The Media Conversation -- Is It A Two-Way Street?

Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen is the latest MSM figure to feel the wrath of a "blogswarm," and the most recent to strike back on the issue of civility. Last week, Cohen wrote that Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert was not only unfunny during his routine at the recent White House Correspondent's Dinner, but downright "rude." As you'll recall, there was a great deal of anger among some in the liberal blogosphere that Colbert received scant attention from the MSM for his pointed jabs at President Bush and those who felt that way were not in the mood to hear what Cohen wanted to say on the subject.

According to Cohen, his column provoked an outpouring of e-mails (he says he received 3,499 in four days). Here's Cohen today:

Truth to tell, I peeked into only a few of the e-mails. I did this because I would sometimes recognize a name I thought I knew, which was almost always a mistake. When I guilelessly clicked on the name, I would get a bucket of raw, untreated and disease-laden verbal sewage right in the face.
At the risk of running this topic into the ground, it follows my argument that the blogosphere is risking marginalization if it is perceived as a cauldron of anger rather than a repository of thought-provoking conversation. How that perception is fostered is up for discussion – many bloggers would argue that those in the MSM focus only on the tone of the discussion at the expense of the more valuable contributions.

We can take that issue up another time, what I want to focus on here is something else Cohen wrote today:

What to make of all this? First, it's not about Colbert. His show has an audience of about 1 million -- not exactly "American Idol" numbers. Second, it marks the end of a silly pretense about interactive media: We give you our e-mail addresses and then, in theory, we have this nice chat. Forget about it. Not only is e-mail too often a kind of epistolary spitball, but there's no way I can even read the 3,506 e-mails now backed up in my queue -- seven more since I started writing this column.
I think Cohen's view of interactivity as a "silly pretense" shows a thin skin and is an example of severe over-reaction. But those pounding on the gates of the old media establishment should ask themselves how best to get in, to establish themselves as an important part of what should be a real conversation. Journalists are notoriously thin-skinned and averse to the kinds of criticisms they level at others. Fair or not, that's the reality of the situation. How bloggers deal with that reality is up to them. Journalists ought to be able to deal with criticism of their work regardless of how that criticism is voiced. The fear is that, in dealing with personal attacks, wild charges and "verbal sewage," they will stop listening altogether and news organizations will pull back their nascent attempts at participating in the conversation. That would be loss for all.