Franklin Foer on the Blogosphere’s War on the Media

The New Republic writer discusses why liberal bloggers are helping destroy the credibility of media outlets, and questions about the new management of the Wall Street Journal.

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Franklin Foer is a senior editor at The New Republic where he writes about politics and media. He has also covered Congress for U.S. News & World Report, and his work has appeared in Slate, the New York Times, the Washington Post, New York magazine and Spin. He is also author of the book, How Soccer Explains the World.


Paul McLeary: In December, you wrote a piece for The New Republic which took liberal bloggers to task for attacking the media for what you called its “Progressive-era ethos of public-minded disinterestedness.” What prompted the piece?


Franklin Foer: I had read the long Michael Massing series in the New York Review of Books [concerning the media] and he started to say a lot of the stuff I’d been thinking for a while about the annoying overreach of media bashers. I thought he did a lot of good work in critiquing the sort of mindless, sweeping, attack mode, but he didn’t quite take the critique all the way. He gave, I thought, liberal bloggers a little bit too much of a pass. In a lot of the attacks on my piece, people say that I’m trying to draw an equivalence between the Rush Limbaughs of the world and the Atrios’s, and I’m really not. I do think there’s a difference between the relentless attacking of Rush Limbaugh and the relentless attacking of an Atrios. Limbaugh very consciously wants to destroy the credibility of institutions like the Times and the Post, whereas Atrios and his ilk are unintentionally doing the same thing.


PM: It seems from some of the responses to your article and subsequent posts [on TNR’s blog, “The Plank”] that some on the Left don’t see that the effect of their critique — even though it’s coming from a different place — is essentially the same.


FF: The rhetoric is the same, I don’t think that the intent is the same. To me, it’s part of what makes the blogosphere annoying, is that there’s so little emphasis on argumentative and rhetorical precision. It’s so easy to attack — and I’m all for attacking — but when attacks become so unhinged and so imprecise, they actually become dangerous.


PM: The issue of objectivity has been batted about by many bloggers, with the Left complaining that the media’s obsession with being objective clouds a commitment to the truth, and the Right complaining about “liberal bias.” How can reporters win in this tug-of-war?


FF: I think that working within the rules of objectivity it’s possible to be tougher and be more of an annoyance to power. But I don’t think we need to abandon objectivity to accomplish those goals.


PM: Kos the other day wrote that it’s time to drop the derisive “MSM” [“mainstream media”] moniker because blogs have now joined the ranks of the mainstream media. He mentioned that if Kos were a daily newspaper, it would be the fifth-largest in the country.


FF: That’s laughable. I actually like Kos’s site — there’s actual substance on Kos’s site — not all of it I agree with, but he’s not a charlatan. I think he’s inflating his own importance, but I think that’s kind of part of the whole blogopshere’s game; that the blogosphere hates the so-called mainstream media so much that they view themselves being in some kind of zero-sum competition with the mainstream media. They view their own credibility and readership as coming directly at the expense of newspapers and television, and that mindset, I think, subconsciously causes them to be so vociferous in their attacks. They have some kind of self-interested motive in trying to destroy “that horrible MSM.”


PM: I think what gets lost in many bloggers’ critiques of the media is that without newspapers, magazines and television news programs to complain about, they wouldn’t have any news to digest.


FF: The smarter bloggers understand that. Digby has made this point, and Kevin Drum has made that point. Blogs are parasitic. With a few notable exceptions like [Josh] Marshall’s blog, bloggers analyze information, they don’t generate it. That said, I think a big logical flaw in the bloggers attack is that they want to destroy a system, but they really don’t have a viable model for replacing it.


The Right actually does have a model for replacing it. The Right has worked on creating its own newspapers and TV outlets and radio networks, so they actually do have an alternative to the current landscape. Whereas liberal bloggers hate the current landscape, but they don’t really propose any sort of other way of doing things.


PM: You also recently wrote about the Wall Street Journal and the management changes there. Do you see, as happened with the Journal, more and more business people coming into newspaper publishing, and squeezing out a management that actually understands what journalism is all about?


FF: The Journal was the one major media institution that had this tradition of turning journalists into corporate executives. The Post and the Times are family-run institutions, whereas at the Journal, the family has always removed itself from management, letting journalists make the decisions, and it really hasn’t worked out very well.


So I don’t think it’s the end of the Journal to have this guy running the place, [although] he doesn’t “get” journalism, I don’t think. He may understand how to make money, and to make journalism they need to make money, but the danger I think is that the Journal ends up selling out to Rupert Murdoch, because Murdoch has long salivated over the Journal, and Murdoch’s history of protecting quality is not high.

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Paul McLeary is senior editor of Defense Technology International magazine, and is a former CJR staffer.