This is the first part of a two part interview with Howard Rosenberg, a former L.A. Times reporter, and Charles Feldman, a former television journalist.
The second part, to be published Thursday or Friday, will focus on a new flap between these authors and this television station. I seeded about it over here. I was going to wait until next week to publish this but the new news decided to me to move it up a week.
Three thoughts before I get to the interview:
1) I got defensive in this interview, especially near the end, because I thought the book generalized too much about bloggers. I apologized to them before and I will do so again
2) The authors and I will have to agree to disagree about Andrew Keen's book. I interviewed Keen here and did a rant about his book here. Keen seemed to go out of his way to make a case against the Internet not letting facts get in the way of said indictment.
3) I have great respect for both authors and, in fact, read Howard Rosenberg regularly in the Los Angeles Times and always found his pieces, especially when critiquing media and television, quite excellent.
Scott Butki: What was your goal with this book?
Howard Rosenberg: Our primary goal was to sound the alarm about what we believed to be the largely ignored perils of media speed, and to do so in a thoughtful and entertaining way.
Scott: How did you divide up the work?
Nearly all of our interviews were done jointly. We split the other research and writing depending on our specific interests and familiarity with the material. For example, Charles largely undertook the chapter about the two "revolutions" because he had worked in much of that milieu. However, we agreed beforehand that nothing would go into the book that we both didn't endorse.
The specific writing was somewhat of a juggling act, as it may be with other co-writers. We have contrasting writing styles, and the challenge was to merge them seamlessly into one. We tried to achieve that by passing things back forth in almost a dialectic fashion until they became what we wanted them to read.
Scott: You guys allude to Broadcast News (a movie I just decided to re-watch for the first time in ten years to tie-in with this interview), a film which, to me at least, seemed ahead of its time but now practically looks like a documentary or a teaching tool for too many tv journalists. Do you agree? It nailed the problem of tv reporters who
think they ARE the story, they deserve screen time, must be emotive on screen, etc.
Howard:"Network" was ahead of its time. "Broadcast News" was merely a fun movie that reflected TV news behavior—emphasis on personality and reporters becoming the story—that I had been witnessing since the early 1970s. It still holds up, though, and I sometimes show it to my USC class in news ethics.
Scott: While I agree with you guys on how tv has reached new lows (and how even when it's gotten so low that it can't get worse it still does) I'm not convinced that newspapers have also declined in quality. Do
you have some kind of proof of that or is just anecdotal?
Howard: My evidence for the general decline in quality of conventional newspapers is pretty much anecdotal, but I'd bet my mortgage on it. The L.A. Times is a powerful metaphor. At its zenith—roughly from the late 1970s to the late 1990s when, in my opinion, it was second only to the New York Times—the editorial staff numbered 1,200. Today it's approximately 650. Do you think the missing 550 were extraneous?
Scott: Why did you decide to do a chapter of you two talking to each other? I kind of liked it but some at Amazon thought it was a low as far as talking about yourselves instead of digging deeper into tech issues a la Lawrence Lessig or something like that?
Howard: The Charles and Howard dialogue chapter was originally Charles' idea, then he sort of cooled to it, but I pushed hard for it after transcribing our conversations. I liked it because I thought it was an original concept for a book and because I found it an interesting and entertaining way to present speed as endemic to the process of journalism. After all, we've witnessed it and even taken part in it. We both felt the chapter would be especially valuable to college students studying journalism. The only criticism of the chapter that I've read was from an anonymous Kirkus reviewer who found it self-serving. All I can say is that was not the intent.
Scott: What did you think of the arguments of Andrew Keen and his book? I think you guys overgeneralized about the value of the Internet and blogs
Howard: We found Keen's book a fun read mixed with occasional hyperbole and profound observations. As evidenced by our book, Charles and I share his skepticism about citizen journalism.
Scott: Howard, I grew up in Southern California and became a newspaper journalist there. I remember being thrilled when you'd write columns echoing my opinion that it was stupid, inane and insipid how much tv stations focused on live tv chases and that was PRE-OJ. Was that a foreshadowing or precursor to all the live news coverage these days? My theory was that it was done at the time because of the logic of "We have the technology (choppers) so we must use it" or "we can amp up excitement through this" but if I read you guys right your theory is
so much stuff is covered live these days more because it fills time.
Howard: When speaking of the gross misuse of "live" technology, it's important to separate local news from the 24-hour news channels. Local newscasts have relatively tiny news holes, and traditionally tend to squander much of their time on gratuitous live coverage as (1) a way to justify the cost (we're leasing a chopper, so we might as well use it and cover these two kids chasing each other on skate boards) and (2) a gimmick to create the illusion of excitement and immediacy where none exists. It's deception, a sham.
It's 24-hour news channels that grapple with bottomless news holes. So they cover every event and non-event they can, just to "feed the beast," as they describe it. And as we point out in the book, this "live" news includes faux news, rolling out endless speculation about what might happen. Or to put it another way (this was Charles' concept) reporting the news before it happens, which is faster even than "live."
Scott: You guys mention the importance of politicians going on shows like Jay Leno and David Letterman and that made me think of McCain's decision to skip going on Letterman. How much do you think that was a big deal
and how much of that was just a media story? Because, as Howard has written,n there's few things the media loves to write about more than itself, witness, say, this book:)
Howard: The Letterman/McCain flap was a classic case of media blowing something tiny hugely our of proportion and then using the blimp of interest they've created to justify subsequent coverage. It sucks. The much larger issue, of course, is the modern phenomenon of entertainment shows becoming gateways to political office. If Abe Lincoln were running today, he probably couldn't elected without being able to trade adlibs with Jon Stewart and Colbert.
Scott: Do you have any regrets about the chapter of the book on blogs? That's the one I found most disappointing and the one also criticized at Amazon. It includes an alarming level of generalizations. That section
suggested you guys believe all blogs are devoid of fact-checking and are not good journalism and/or are not reflective... Because I and many others will dispute that: I often find more thoughtful reporting and musings at sites like the Root than in the Washington Post. Let me ask this: What blogs DO you guys like and read?
Howard: The blogger chapter was my idea. I was the one who attended the bloggers' convention (Charles had intended to join me, but couldn't make it). The idea was to go there and see first hand what they talk about, and then to write the chapter as a blogger might write it. That included snap judgments and broad generalizations (yes, I'm being pejorative). Do we think that "all blogs are devoid of fact-checking and are not good journalism and/or are not reflective?" Of course, not. Charles is a blogger himself (www.thefeldmanblog.com) and I have joined him in writing a modest one sporadically for our web page. As you know, there are millions and millions of blogs, and to call all of them shit would be specious.
I do not sit in front of my computer each morning and read blogs until my eyes glaze over. But blogs/websites that I check on with some regularity (in addition to Charles') include Romensko, Drudge, L.A. Observed, Howard Kurtz, Huffington Post, Politico and Town Hall.
Scott: I noticed in your publicity material you included an interview that focuses on this very question regarding how bloggers are described. In it Rosenberg says he's not making a blanket indictment of bloggers (though it sure reads that way and I'm apparently not the only one who read it that way. So here's a chance to better explain what you guys mean?
Put another way, Charles, you answer the question about blogging by
saying "the problem I have with it (blogging) is that in the days
before blogs, if you were a writer, whether it's for a newspaper,
magazine, TV, whatever, the notion was you wanted to do your best to
get facts as straight as possible befoer you put them into print or
onto the air. That's almost antithetical to the nature of blogging..."
This, to me, at least seems to contradict another theme of the book
namely the problem of 24-7 tv channels causing everything to happen
faster, be it newspapers, reporters, etc.
Yes, some bloggers are too quick to blog and, yes, some tv journalists
are too quick to go live (which is why I insist when people debate
media ethics that we debate newspaper ethics and values and those of
tv separately... But is it fair to blame bloggers for the decline in
other types of journalism, especially when you seem to be also blaming
tv for the same thing? I'm reminded of how people look at the decline
of quality in the schools and 8 people will look at it and 8 will find
different explanations for that problem.
I'm sure Charles will respond to the conflict you see in his quote about blogging and inaccuracy, but I don't see the contradiction at all. Has speed always been a component of journalism, since its inception? Yes, absolutely, and as such a constant danger. Have the pervasiveness of 24-hour news and the Internet accelerated that speed and, subsequently, increased the danger? Yes, absolutely. Are bloggers solely responsible for the sky falling in? No. In fact, the book carefully tracks the speed-driven media and technological histories, to say nothing of talk radio, that preceded the explosion of blogospherics.
Scott: You guys criticize groupthink on page 85 but how does that square with the success (not the mistaken criticisms of the Andrew Keen but the reality) of Wikipedia as being more accurate and fast than many news organizations? Do you guys reject the premise that writers can benefit from the feedback and expertise of the readers?
Howard: Instead of lambasting groupthink, by the way, we merely point out its flaws. Mobs are not always wrong; on occasion, the right person is lynched. But relying on the Internet as a self-correcting medium—so why bother to check your facts, just throw it out there and wait for some one else to set you straight?—is the equivalent of lazythink
And if you think it can't have dire consequences, I call your attention to erroneous Internet reports about United Airlines (in September) and Apple (in October) that did great permanent damage before being corrected, speed taking precedence over careful vetting. Is the history of newspapers littered with speed-driven mistakes, too. Of course. But the potential was not as lethal because everything written went through layers of editors. In that regard, it's my believe that the old saw about journalism being the first draft of history has been usurped by one more befitting the times: much of journalism has become the raw scribbles of the first draft of history.
To me it seems like you guys don't grasp the most important part about
writing on the Internet, namely that it's all about reputation and
credibility. Yes many older journalists have freaked out at the fact
that now everyone can have that metaphorical printing press of their
own but that does not mean that each has a real audience nor one that
takes them seriously. This leads to the question asked by you two as
well as Keen namely how can we trust them?The answer is you decide
which blogs to trust the same way one decides which tv or newspaper
journalist you trust - by looking at their work over a period of time
and deciding if that person demonstates they are truthful, ethical and credible.
Thus Drudge may be well known but that doesn't make him reputable or
credible anymore than, say Rush Limbaugh or Larry King (who are also
well known but not exactly seen as journalists) - all three also don't
call themselves journalists. When you two - and Keen did this too -
use Drudge to criticize bloggers it'd be a bit like me using Barbara
Walters to criticize tv journalists - not exactly accurate, fair or on
My point is this: whether a writer is on tv or the Internet isn't it
the message that matters, not the medium (I hear Marshall McLuhan
rolling over in his grave) Do you agree or disagree with my point(s)?
For example, what seems odd to you guys on page 89 of your book (a guy
reading Cuban's blog while attending a speech by Cuban) makes complete
sense to me if you do what I do, namely place values on Internet
speakers based on their reputation and credibility: How better to
decide how much value to place on Cuban's speech than by reading
Cuban's blog? It's multitasking at its finest.
Meanwhile, speaking of broad generalizations, why would you conclude that Charles and I believe that writers can't "benefit from the feedback and expertise of readers?" As someone who regularly ran readers' letters (without comment from me) during my 25 years as Los Angeles Times TV critic—most of them rebutting my opinions and characterizing me as a roach—I'll rest on my record. In fact, I've regularly chastised newscasts for not running reader comments.
Regarding our "failure to grasp the important part about writing on the Internet," as you note, much of this is in the eye of the beholder. We write one thing, you infer another. We'll just have to agree to disagree on that.
Finally, as for the blogger who read Mark Cuban's blog—eyes lasered forward—as Cuban was delivering his speech, I was the eyewitness. What you call "multitasking at its finest," I call multitasking at its worst. Do you really think this guy was giving equal attention to the speech while reading text? Do you think the human mind, old or young, is compartmentalized that way, is wired that way? If this guy wanted to investigate Cuban's credibility, by the way, perhaps he should have checked him out before the speech. Maybe, do you think?
Anyway, that's it from me. I hope some of this will be of use.
(Apologies for that last long babbling question)