Telling Tales Out Of School, Part II

OK,I’m going back to the well of the Tufts class a third time, because one of the student’s questions really got me thinking heavily. He wanted to know what I thought of the relationship between blogs and the mainstream media, how the give and take goes, and what sorts of benefits are there for both.

I started by restating something I’ve said before: the press likes to think of itself as the unofficial fourth branch of government. The Fourth Estate tends to see itself as a Constitutionally-enshrined body, with not only a right but a duty to exert a checking influence on governmental abuses of power.

But the flaw in that is that the three official branches of government — Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary — are governed by a Constitutional set of checks and balances that each can use to rein in the others.

Unlike them, though, the press has practically no check on its power. There is no countering body that can bring them to heel should they abuse their authority.

Well, the American people have a tendency that comes in handy in times like this: if they see a need for something, they go and invent it. And, I think, that’s a factor in the evolution of the political blogosphere.

A lot of us see our “job” as providing a counterbalance to the media’s more egregious offenses. We have no more authority or power than they do; the best we can do is expose and denounce (through sarcasm, mockery, or outrage — and always trying to be entertaining at the same time, to keep our audiences) their misdeeds, pretty much as they do.

This is potentially a great value to the media. They could look at what the blogs are saying about them, and look at their own actions through outside eyes. As a certain poet once said:

O would some Power, the gift to give us,
To see ourselves as others see us!
It would from many a blunder free us,
And, foolish notion:
What airs of dress and bearing would leave us,
And even pridefullness!

But right now, that’s not happening. Most of the media is still trying to figure out just what the blogosphere is all about, if they’re not wondering why they should even care.

Speaking for myself, I said that I depend heavily on the mainstream media. I watch TV, listen to the radio, and read a lot of news sources online not only for blog topics, but for my own general edification.

Pretty much every morning, I hit the sites of the Boston Herald, the Boston Globe, and the Union Leader. But it’s been at least a couple of years since I paid for a newspaper.

There is a term for a relationship where one party benefits at the expense of the other, and the other derives no benefit — even in some cases is harmed.

I — and many other bloggers — are parasites.

Sure, we try to tapdance around that, but it’s essentially true. We do offer what we consider a valuable commodity to our benefactors in the media — our criticism — but very few of them choose to accept it, let alone value it. And in the meantime, we are helping to kill them, biting the hand that feeds us, by lambasting and running them down at every opportunity (and they give us plenty of those) and urging people to take their offerings without actually paying them for it by steering people to the newspaper’s web site instead of a newsstand.

When there is a conflict between bloggers and the media, it’s usually pretty small potatoes. Very few bloggers have the resources to cause much trouble for the media, so they tend to get bored and give up. Or they keep it up and make a crusade out of it.

If that happens, it gets very unpredictable. The media might devote some of its resources to squelching the blogger. That tends to provoke even more bloggers to rally to their colleague’s defense, almost in a “posse” or a “lynch mob.”

Should things get too heated, it can come down to one simple comparison: the media is in it for the money, the blogger is in it for the fun. This can mean that the media can crush the blogger through its far greater resources, but sooner or later someone’s going to look at the balance sheet and say “what we would spend on this one idiot could be far better used in other ways.” Or the blogger could look at the potential fight and say “this doesn’t look like it’s going to be fun any more” and just move on.

In a very broad sense, fights between the media and the bloggers remind me of the Arab-Israeli wars, with us bloggers as the Arabs. The fights always start when we choose them, we tend to give up if things start getting nastier than we want to deal with, and we always claim some great moral victory whether we win or not, because losing doesn’t carry much of a penalty. The media, on the other hand, knows that it can not really afford to lose, so it treats every single conflict as a matter of life and death — because it often is, as bloggers tend to threaten their financial bottom line in several ways. If a blogger loses a fight, or even loses their blog, they’ll just shrug and go on with their lives. If a newspaper loses a major fight with a blogger, it’s going to cost them precious resources — if not actual money, then lost opportunities because they were too busy fighting off that blogger.

I don’t have any real ideas about the future of the blogosphere, and the mainstream media. I see a tremendous potential future for both, providing they can find a way to coexist in a way that, if it doesn’t at least benefit both, keeps them from killing each other.

And I really, really hope that doesn’t happen.

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