National Review writer and National Review Online Editor-at-Large Jonah Goldberg gave a great speech tonight at Northwestern University to a packed hall. His main topic was what he said it would be: internet journalism, media bias, and blogging. Tonight, he informed, entertained, and left the audience with a better understanding of how the media works with and against internet hack writers like myself.
The sponsor for the College Republicans gave the standard "views expressed by the speaker are not necessarily those of the management" statement, the current president rattled off Jonah's curriculum vitae, and Jonah came out swinging with his favorite weapon, humor. (He'd probably say something else cool like "broken mezcal bottles" but humor is his best weapon.) The first question was "How many bloggers are in the audience tonight?" I raised my hand and suddenly felt very, very alone in that audience. However, my unique position in the room is unimportant. Mr. Goldberg started in with his contributions to internet journalism, National Review's "G-File" and the subsequent creation a few years later of "The Corner."
This led to a general overview of the news media, internet punditry, and where the seeds of blogging were sown. I was expecting a few paeans to the early pamphleteers like Thomas Paine, but thankfully he kept the phenomenon to its more modern roots. The rise of multiple cable news channels and pundit shows like Crossfire helped to get a new audience interested in voicing their opinions, or at least being really loud and able to grab the attention of others. The spread of opinion shows helped to bolster the idea of getting as many voices out into the mainstream as possible, breaking the control of the Big 3 networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC for you non-Americans out there). Breaking the Big 3's control by the growth of cable news (CNN, Fox, MSNBC and CNBC) was what opened up the floodgate of opinion journalists on television, but it paved the way for writers to start using the internet as another workaround to getting past the major networks' story biases.
Internet journalists have helped to further erode the control of the networks as audiences have moved away from the evening news to a 24-hour news cycle, and in many cases an even faster news cycle. Jonah brought up the median age of the evening news watcher as 60. These viewers get a total of 19 minutes of news out of an ostensibly 30-minute show. What do the newscasters bring to journalism if they're only on for 19 minutes? "Really important hair," says the NRO Editor-at-Large. The main point was that the newscasters feel that their turf as disseminators of information is threatened by those of us who blog on non-personal issues.
As for liberal media bias? "It just simply is," Goldberg says. The complaint against an excessive liberal bias isn't so much a configuration complaint as it is a populist one. It's in their basic outlook on the entire world, ingrained into their language, and seems to culminate that more government intervention is a good and progressive force in society. Combine that with an anti-corporate bias (despite corporations giving scads of money to liberal groups like the Sierra Club) and we can see that there's quite a bit of Marxist theory still running around the newsrooms. This led to a comparison of how the left and right (such as they are) have used their various methods to try and score points in a big game of media "gotcha."
First, Goldberg says, there's the conservatives. Bloggers from the right have stopped the careers of Howell Raines during his tenure at the New York Times, Eason Jordan's career as head of CNN, and forced Dan Rather into retiring early from his anchorman spot on The CBS Evening News. The lefties? They have the Jim Guckert/Jeff Gannon scandal. The point of this is that the right-leaners have removed some big names out of their cushy jobs while the left-leaners have spent the same amount of energy going after a guy from an obscure news service because of his desire to register and run homosexual-oriented websites. The left-leaning blogs have essentially undertaken an expedition to hunt elephant, and returned with a bullet-ridden chipmunk carcass.
With a segue that broke the land topic-speed-change record, Jonah brought up Howard Dean's internet campaign as an idea that hasn't had a decent execution yet. (By execution I mean that in a "Make it so, Number One" way, not a "Che Guevara vs. angry peasants" way.) The main reason? The Dean message, not to mention the Democrats' message is "If President Bush is for it, we are against it." Never mind that what Dubya has done to spread democracy into the Middle East is a classic liberal strategy! Even with the massive military force brought into the equation, spreading democracy is a liberal thing to do, and many of the Democrats are beginning to change their tunes.
With the meat of the speech ended, Jonah decided to take quite a few questions related to the Dean internet campaign and Howard Dean's accession to the DNC Chairmanship. Mr. Goldberg doesn't see how Dean will go over very well, since he's trying to be an urban Northeasterner while the national discussion is going on in the South and West.
On the question of whether or not media rules should apply to bloggers when it comes to national security, Jonah was quick and to the point: yes. I can agree with him on this. There are times when national security is at stake and information really is on a "need to know" basis. Then again, I think that's my Air Force training coming into play as well.
There was a question about whether or not Democrats are warming up to President Bush, and Jonah replied that it's not really happening despite a lot of their favorite things happening in terms of growth of government and spreading democracy throughout the world.
On the question of blogging in "less free countries" as the questioner put it, Jonah mentioned how huge the blogging phenomenon is in Iran. He would have expected the same thing in China based upon its huge population, but total governmental control of the internet prevents it from happening. Iranian blogging does draw a similar parallel to the samizdata of the old Soviet Union.
A big question was whether or not blogging will get co-opted by the major media networks and if it's already turning into kitsch along the lines of young writers who use old typewriters as an affectation. Yes, it's pretty much kitsch by now. It's important kitsch, though; blogs still provide instant feedback and a great array of fact-checking for newspapers. "Print media, whether it's on a screen or on paper still determines the news for the rest of the media," Goldberg said. A lot of the older bloggers like Mickey Kaus and Andrew Sullivan have thought of leaving the blogosphere, so whether blogging is a good force for journalism or not is still up in the air. He thinks the phenomenon will slow down and die in time.
The most important question, though, ended the night. What happened to the writing on The Simpsons? Jonah says that the show's best days have been behind it for a long time. Rupert Murdoch of Fox sees something in the show, though, so he's still willing to keep the franchise alive. With that, the evening concluded. Jonah seems to welcome blogging as an addition to internet opinion journalism, but it's not going to replace any other traditional media outlets any time soon. He kept everything going quickly and smoothly, and the packed house at Harris Hall filed out with a better understanding of this newfangled information source.
Afterwards, a group of us headed out to Evanston's very own Firehouse Grill for a few beers and a good dinner. What did we talk about? I am sworn to secrecy, though I can say that it did not involve airborne-laser volcano lancing, the Rosicrucians, nor a discussion of Hilary Swank's Oscar outfit. Jonah Goldberg is a classy guy and a wonderful speaker. I hope that Northwestern's College Republicans invite him back again, as I will show up for whatever subjects he may have as his topic.
And now, an object lesson to Lucy Goldberg: If you follow in your father's footsteps, you'll have to deal with fuzzy-headed internet geeks like the guy standing to your father's right:
UPDATE: Welcome to all of you Corner readers out there! Please look around and comment, and feel free to send ideas for me to research and write. I may use them if I get the chance.