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ROOTS (PART 2 OF 4)! Have web press critics offered valid complaints? There’s no sign that Rutenberg asked: // link // print // previous // next //

IN PRAISE OF HOLDSCLAW AND JENKINS: God bless Chamique Holdsclaw for causing this front-page piece to be written. And all praise to Sally Jenkins and her eds at the Washington Post. “Is that what it was?” said Tamicha Jackson, Holdsclaw’s teammate on the Washington Mystics. “My heart goes out to her...I can feel for her now that I know. It was hard to sympathize because I didn’t know.” Many other people will “know” because of this wise, helpful article.

ROOTS (PART 2): When Jim Rutenberg spoke with embattled press colleagues, their words were inspiring, as usual (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/28/04). How did his mainstream colleagues respond to their critics on the web? “Most political reporters interviewed for this article insisted that outside forces did not sway them from being fair,” Rutenberg reported, cuing the strings. Earlier, at the top of his piece, he offered a similar overview:

RUTENBERG (10/28/04): Journalists covering the campaign believe the intent [of web critics] is often to bully them into caving to a particular point of view. They insist the efforts have not swayed them in any significant way, though others worry the criticism could eventually have a chilling effect.
Reporters “insisted” they wouldn’t be “bullied” or swayed from their usual fairness! Still and all, web criticism might have a “chilling effect,” the troubled reporters solemnly warned. Indeed, “a couple [of reporters] admitted they could not rule out having pulled punches in small and even subconscious ways” because of their critics. Darn it! The bullying of the web’s press critics may already be having an effect!

Indeed, Rutenberg’s overall picture was hard to miss. Howard Fineman did offer a murky but positive statement about the effects of web criticism. “Most of us now realize that this is a constant conversation, and I think that largely that part of it is good,” the Newsweek scribe was quoted saying—before going to on to note that “[s]ome of the [criticism] includes very personal and nasty things about people,” criticism that is “hurtful.” But Rutenberg’s overall construction was clear. Web critics were trying to “bully” reporters into being unfair or caving in to partisan scripts. Indeed, how scary was the overall situation? Early in the piece, one observer offered a chilling analysis:

RUTENBERG: Many of the Internet writers say they have been empowered by the Web to begin serving as a long-needed real-time check on mainstream outlets and reporters who they say wield too much power, sometimes irresponsibly and often with hidden partisan motives.

''The traditional players, including the press, have lost some of the control or exclusive control they used to have,'' said Jay Rosen, chairman of the journalism department at New York University, who keeps his own Web log, or blog.

But, he added, “I think there's a campaign under way to totally politicize journalism and totally politicize press criticism.”

“It's really an attack not just on the liberal media or press bias, it's an attack on professionalism itself, on the idea that there could be disinterested reporters,” he said.

Yikes! Web critics are attacking “professionalism itself!” No, it’s not clear who or what Rosen specifically meant, and his overall comments may have been quite instructive. But what’s the overall portrait in Rutenberg’s piece? Press critics on the web are trying to bully reporters. Their work is frequently driven by insults. Indeed, there’s a campaign underway to “totally politicize journalism”—an “attack on professionalism itself.” But Rutenberg’s colleagues are standing tall. His colleagues “insist” they won’t be “swayed” from their traditional fairness.

How unbalanced is that portrait? Consider a question that doesn’t seem to have been asked—a question that is never allowed to intrude on this article’s parade of rank horribles.

In his article, Rutenberg’s sources “insist,” several times, that they won’t be “swayed” by their critics. They won’t allow critics to “bully them into caving to a particular point of view.” They won’t allow these “outside forces” to “sway them from being fair.” Yes, they’re afraid of a “chilling effect” which might be produced by their bullying critics. But good news! They “insist” that their critics on the web “have not swayed them in any significant way!”

Several things seem clear from this presentation. It’s clear that Rutenberg allowed his sources to discuss their own heroic postures. And it’s clear that Rutenberg let them describe the malevolent posture of those on the web. But one question doesn’t seem to intrude on this deeply pleasing portrait. Rutenberg doesn’t seem to have asked an obvious question: Have web press critics have ever made valid points? Have mainstream reporters ever learned from their critics? Have Rutenberg’s colleagues ever been “swayed” by instructive complaints that they find on the web? There’s no sign that Rutenberg’s sources were asked. Nor do they seem to have answered.

Do you see why we emitted mordant chuckles when we hungrily devoured this piece? We chuckled when heroic scribes piously swore that they hadn’t been “swayed” by their critics. We laughed because this statement was stunningly accurate—and because it comprised such a stark self-indictment. Indeed, over the course of the past seven years, Rutenberg’s colleagues have persistently refused to take instruction from valid critiques on the web. Now they brag and boast about it. Indeed, they proudly “insist” that they haven’t been “swayed” in any significant manner.

Truer words were never spoken! But readers, have web press critics offered valid complaints? There’s no sign that Rutenberg’s colleagues were asked. Which returns us to what we ourselves told the scribe—to the incomparable example we gave him, an example which landed on the cutting-room floor as Jim Rutenberg’s boo-hooing colleagues described the abuse they’ve endured.

TOMORROW: Part 3—Praising Tumulty