Young Joseph Rago versus the blogosphere.
HH: Time to do an end of the year look at the media hour. It’s pretty easy to find a lot of aging MSM’ers who hate the new media, and blogs in particular. But it’s very rare to find a young MSM’er who wants to throw down against the blogs especially, but we’ve got one. Last week, Joseph Rago wrote, “The Blog Mob: Written By Fools To Be Read By Imbeciles”, in the Opinionjournal.com, and I welcome him now to the Hugh Hewitt Show. Joe, welcome. Good to have you.
JR: Thanks for the invitation, Hugh.
HH: Now did this piece also appear in the print edition of the Wall Street Journal?
JR: Yes, it did.
HH: All right. And what day was it on…December 20th, correct?
JR: That’s right.
HH: Okay. Now what is your job at the Journal?
JR: I’m an assistant editorial features editor.
HH: And how long have you been at it?
JR: What that basically means is I edit and commission op-ed pieces, and I write occasionally for the page.
HH: And so how long have you been doing it?
JR: About 20 months now, something like that.
HH: Okay. Before that, you were an undergrad at Dartmouth, correct?
JR: That’s right.
HH: What year did you graduate?
HH: And you were the editor of the Dartmouth Review, a student newspaper, right?
JR: I was.
HH: Are writers and editors of student newspapers journalists, Joe?
JR: Yeah, I would say they are, in a minor way. You know, they cover the campus.
HH: So they’re not paid, though.
JR: No, they’re not.
HH: And what makes them journalists then?
JR: Sorry, can you repeat the question?
HH: Sure. What makes them journalists?
JR: They…I think they cover events that go on on campus. They look into it closely. They have an opinion about it.
HH: And so the definition of journalism, so we can define some terms before we go into new versus old journalism is they cover events?
JR: Well, I mean, I think the best definition of journalism is history as refracted through the prism of the unfolding present. You know, you don’t…
HH: Is that what you were doing at the Dartmouth Review?
JR: Yeah, I think so. You know…
HH: Talent a lot better than the Crimson was in my day then, but go ahead (laughing).
JR: You know, hey, they’re amateur journalists, certainly.
HH: But journalists.
JR: Right. I don’t think it takes any sort of special talent to be a journalist. Well, that’s not right. I don’t think you have to go to J school, or anything like that. But I think to be a journalist, you have to have a certain seriousness, a comprehensiveness of what you cover, your beat. You have to have sources, and you have to develop a certain expertise on a topic.
HH: You have to have sources?
JR: I think so, certainly.
HH: Okay. We’ll come back to that. Now when you were at Dartmouth, did you live abroad at all?
JR: I did.
HH: Where’d you go?
JR: I lived in London for about five, six months.
HH: Okay. Do you have any foreign language skills?
JR: No, not particularly, unless Latin is a foreign language.
HH: No, there are no blogs in Latin…because I was going to ask, was your criticism of blogs limited then to only English language blogs?
JR: Yeah, more or less. That’s what I read.
JR: It was definitely focused on the American scene as opposed to foreign language blogs. That’s right.
HH: Okay, a few more background questions, then we’ll get to the specifics. Do you know any active duty military personnel presently deployed to Iraq?
JR: Yes, I do. One of my close friends from school is a year ahead of me, is now in Iraq.
HH: Has he been a source for you?
JR: No, he hasn’t.
HH: So you don’t have any sources in Iraq?
JR: No, I don’t.
HH: Any training in the law on your part?
HH: Do you think it’s necessary to be trained in the law to understand, for example, a Supreme Court opinion?
JR: I think training certainly helps you interpret it better than you would otherwise.
HH: How about medicine? Any training in medicine?
JR: Not particularly, no.
HH: Are you an athlete?
JR: I rode at school.
HH: Oh, you did? You’re crew?
JR: Yes, I was.
HH: Are there any crew blogs out there?
JR: I don’t follow it that closely anymore. I’m sure there are. There’s a blog on almost any topic.
HH: Yeah, there’s…I’m going to talk about a triathaloning blog with you a little bit later, www.trigeekdreams.com. But I’ll come back to that. Now, to make this easier as we go through discussing your piece, I’d like to…and I set it up last hour. People know what we’re talking about here, what you thought, so I could save time when I had you on the phone. To make this easier, I’d like to get a frame of reference by establishing if we read any of the same blogs. So I’m going to run through a list here.
HH: Are you familiar with the work at www.hughhewitt.com, done by me, Dean Barnett, Josh Trevino and Mary Katherine Ham?
JR: Yes, I am.
HH: Okay. How about the three guys at Powerline?
HH: Do you read National Review’s The Corner?
JR: Yes, I do.
HH: Do you read Jim Geraghty?
JR: No, I don’t. Is that…
HH: TKS, one of the blogs at www.nationalreview.com.
JR: Yeah, I don’t follow that one very closely.
HH: How about the Volokh Conspiracy?
HH: You do? Okay. Professor Bainbridge?
JR: Sometimes, yes.
HH: Professor Althouse?
JR: Sometimes, yes.
HH: Theologian, writer, blogger, Mark D. Roberts?
HH: John Mark Reynolds, a teacher, professor and theologian?
HH: Last theologian on my list. Albert Mohler?
JR: No, I don’t.
HH: How about Michelle Malkin?
JR: From time to time, yes.
HH: Captain’s Quarters?
JR: Also from time to time, yes.
HH: Are you familiar with Michael Yon?
HH: Are you familiar with Mudville Gazette?
JR: No, I’m not.
HH: Black Five?
HH: Ace of Spades?
JR: From time to time.
HH: Have you read his review of your piece?
JR: I might have, yeah.
HH: (laughing) He didn’t like it much. How about Eject! Eject! Eject?
HH: Bill Roggio’s The Fourth Rail?
HH: What do you think of that?
JR: I read it regularly. It’s very good.
JR: From time to time, yes.
HH: Michael Totten?
JR: I’ve heard of him, but I don’t read him with any regularity.
HH: Okay. Yoni the Blogger?
HH: Iraq the Model?
HH: Truth Laid Bear?
JR: From time to time.
HH: All right. Now to the piece at hand, because we basically, then, I have to assume that given that we all read these same blogs, I think you only missed one or two, that when you were writing generally in your piece, you were referring generally to these bloggers.
JR: Partially, yes. But you know, it approached the topic from a fairly high level of generality.
HH: Well, that I realize. But if these 25 blogs are your blog universe with two exceptions, you don’t read Totten or Geraghty, and you really should read both of them, then the criticisms you level in your piece should be understood as being criticisms leveled at them.
JR: In part, yes. Definitely.
HH: And so, if they read your piece, they should read it, knowing that you have read them, and you chose not to accept them from your conclusions?
JR: Well, I mean, as I say, it’s approaches the topic from a fairly high level of generality. You know, you can always find exceptions to the rule, but you know, there you go.
HH: But generally speaking, given that these are the blogs you generally read, your general conclusions had to be based in part upon your general impression of them.
JR: In part, yes.
HH: Okay. I’m not bringing up the lefty blogs, because again, I want to stay in the world that I know. You write that journalism requires journalists.
HH: The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage.
HH: Are these bloggers that we’ve discussed journalists?
JR: Yes, I think they are.
HH: Do they produce minimal reportage?
JR: I think they do.
HH: And how do you assess that?
JR: Well, most of the blogs you just mentioned mainly exist to purvey opinion and comment. You know, they’re interpreting the news. That’s certainly fine. But you know, the main thrust of what I wrote was not in regard to journalism. Well, (pause) excuse me, I’m a little bit tongue-tied. You know, it mentions journalism right here, and then it goes on to discuss other things. If you’re looking at the blogosphere as a whole, I think minimal reportage is an accurate assessment.
HH: Well, let’s work from some specifics backwards, then. Let’s take the NSA story leaked by the New York Times about a year ago, correct?
HH: Do you consider their publication of the existence of a state secret to be reportage?
JR: I think it’s reportage. I think it was despicable, though. They certainly shouldn’t have published that.
HH: But it was reportage?
HH: And so that…journalists are defined by their reportage. Now when people came along to discuss that story, and offer analysis of it, was that reportage? Or was that commentary?
JR: I think it’s analysis and commentary, certainly.
HH: Now have you read the decision In Re Sealed Case from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court Appeals Court?
JR: No, I haven’t.
HH: Now given that when that decision came out, a number of us, me included, but bloggers at www.volokh.com, and throughout the blogosphere, began to debate whether or not the program was authorized, and called to the attention of the public things like In Re Sealed Case. Is that reportage?
JR: I think it’s analysis.
HH: But if you didn’t know about it, and I bring to your attention In Re Sealed Case, in which a very important bit of dicta exists concerning that program, am I not reporting to you the existence of a case that you were unaware of?
JR: Well, it’s not that I’m not aware of it. I just haven’t read it personally.
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HH: Let’s go back, Joe, to the question on the NSA decision. Why is it not crucial, and why isn’t it the best part of journalism to put the NSA program into its appropriate legal context, bring to the public’s attention the crucial facts around it, and to make sure that they understand that there is a series of decisions affecting that? Why isn’t that just as important as the raw announcement of a state secret?
JR: I think it’s just as important.
HH: So it is…it’s journalism.
HH: And it’s reportage.
JR: It’s opinion journalism.
HH: Well no, again, bringing to the attention of the public facts that they are unaware of is, I think…what’s the difference between that and the original…the NSA program existed and you were unaware of it. The In Re Sealed Case decision existed and you were unaware of it. The New York Times brought the former to your attention, I and other bloggers brought In Re Sealed Case to your attention. What is the difference between those two bringing to your attentions?
JR: I don’t think there’s any difference besides semantics here.
HH: And so, but what I’m getting at is, that was not minimal reportage for the blogosphere during that period of time, both left and right. There was an enormous amount of reportage going on, in fact, far better than that which appeared…I don’t recall your paper’s coverage, but the New York Times slanted its coverage desperately to avoid confronting the arguments in defense of the President’s conduct of the that surveillance. So the good reporting, the comprehensive reporting, was actually going on, on the ‘sphere, not in the MSM.
JR: Well, I mean, I really think we’re just talking about semantics here. You know, of course some blogs do some good things. I don’t think anybody would read the piece that I wrote and come away saying that all blogs are bad, or conversely, that the MSM is always good.
HH: Well, you did write about the blogs, that posts oscillate between the uselessly brief and the uselessly logorrheic. I can’t say that word very well. Complexity and complication are eschewed. Now in the case of the NSA decision, perhaps the most important bit of journalism in the last year, the complexity and complication arguments, they were made on the ‘sphere by Constitutional scholars and experts in the world of national security surveillance. So I guess my point is didn’t the blogs do a much better job than mainstream journalism on that particular issue?
JR: I mean, not having it in front of me, I can’t really say who did a better job. You know, but the quote you just read, I think applies as a whole, definitely.
HH: But again, I think that level of generality is important to be backed up. I’m giving you a specific where the complexity and complication were eschewed by the mainstream media, but were in fact produced in great measure by the bloggers. And is that not at least possible?
JR: It’s certainly possible.
HH: All right. Now Porkbusters…are you familiar with Porkbusters?
HH: And with earmarks?
HH: Generally speaking, who was it that brought to the public’s attention the trafficking in earmarks, and brought about the earmark reform that came to be?
HH: I actually think most of the credit would go to the Porkbusters coalition, of which I am not a member, but begun by Instapundit and Truth Laid Bear, and that they kept up the incessant pounding, pounding, pounding that actually led to the reform. But at least, you would have to agree with me, Joe, that they were at least as thorough in their reporting as was mainstream media of that particular issue, correct?
JR: Yes, definitely.
HH: All right. In the nomination of Justices Alito and Scalia, also one of the most dramatic developments in this country in the last 18 months, who took the lead in reporting on…
JR: Alito and Scalia?
HH: Excuse me, Alito and Roberts.
HH: Who took the lead in reporting on who they were, what they had done, and the dynamics of their confirmation?
JR: I mean, it was a huge story. Everybody was covering it.
HH: But were bloggers bringing reporting to that process?
JR: Yes, definitely.
HH: And was that reporting as good as that which you found in the mainstream media?
JR: In some cases yes. In some cases, much worse.
HH: Are you familiar with Ed Whelan at National Review?
JR: Yes, I am.
HH: How about the blog www.confirmthem.com?
JR: It rings a bell, but I can’t say I’ve looked at it recently.
HH: Okay, it’s a matter of, I think, undeniable fact that the most comprehensive coverage of the actual legal issues raised by the committee, and by the witnesses, was done on the blogosphere, because of questions of space. You know, you guys are limited by column inches, and the blogosphere isn’t. And they just outshined tremendously there. Do you disagree?
JR: I mean, I don’t think I disagree, but I do think that…again, I do think that there are some good elements to the blogosphere, but there’s also a lot of negative. And it seems a little bit silly to sort of have this triumphalism about the blogosphere at the expense of what everyone calls the mainstream media, without looking at any of the consequences.
HH: Well, thus far, I’ve identified the NSA story as being representative of the mainstream media, and Porkbusters and coverage of Supreme Court justices as being representative of new media, and I think new media is winning that run down. Do you want to put forward…other than Katrina, although I’m not sure you’d want to put forward Katrina, any major story on which the mainstream media has dominated in terms of reporting and analysis over the blogosphere?
JR: Well, the one I said in my article, I think, certainly is Iraq. I think they’ve done a much better job in that regard.
HH: Let’s jump, then, to Bill Roggio, Michael Yon and Michael Totten.
HH: Those three bloggers have, this year alone, Roggio spent three months in the country, Michael Yon brought news from Mosul of the Gates of Fire series of posts, Michael Totten has been in and out of Kurdistan and Lebanon reporting on the Cedar Revolution. Do you wish to set them up as inferior to any three mainstream media journalists?
JR: No, certainly not.
HH: So if those three represent one aspect of media, then we’ve got a tie.
JR: Well, I don’t think three people adds up to a tie. You know, a Baghdad bureau is extraordinarily expensive, reporters going in and out for the mainstream media. And I just don’t think it’s comparable to find isolated incidents…you know, three people, and compare it to the entire apparatus.
HH: But if those three people are doing good reporting, and mainstream media is by and large doing bad reporting out of Iraq, doesn’t that mean the ‘sphere is doing better reporting?
JR: Well, I mean, I don’t think that the mainstream media is doing all that bad reporting out of Iraq. You know, the pessimistic, glass half-full reporting they’ve done has held up much better than the commentary in the blogosphere.
HH: Are you aware of who Lt. General James Mattis is?
JR: No, I’m not.
HH: He is the commanding general of Camp Pendleton’s First Marine Expeditionary Force. He’s commander of U.S. Marine Force at Central Command. And at Hughhewitt.com today, I linked to an interview he gave with a small newspaper in Northern San Diego County. And he says this…well, we’ll come back to it.
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HH: Joe, before we went to break, I wanted to read you this from General Mattis. “I was talking to a lieutenant in Haditha,” he told the San Diego County reporter, “He told me that because they are now all connected nowadays, and they’re FOB’s, he could read stories about Haditha.” He said, “I guarantee you there has not been a reporter in Haditha in my last two and a half months here. We are seeing,” the general continued, “I think, an unwitting passing of the enemy’s message, a critical, unwitting passing of the enemy’s message, because the enemy has successfully denied the Western media access to the battlefields. I’m not sure what Lloyds of London is charging now. I think it’s over $5,000 dollars a month insurance for a reporter or photographer to go in. But the murder, the kidnapping, the intimidation means that in many cases, we have media folks who are relying on stringers who are Iraqi. Now you can have any kind of complaint about the American media or Western media you want, but there is at least a nod, an effort, towards objectivity. The stringers who are being brought in, who are bringing in these stories, are not bringing in the same degree of objectivity. So on the one hand, our enemy is denying our media access to the battlefield, where anything, perhaps, that I say as a general is subject to any number of interpretations, challenges, questions. But the enemy’s story, basically, gets out there without that, because our media is unable to challenge them. It’s unwitting, but at the same time, it can promote the enemy’s agenda, simply because there is an apparent attempt at objectivity.” Now Joe, without debating the specifics of what the general’s saying here, he is putting forward the proposition that in fact, mainstream media is terribly broken because they’re giving the appearance of covering what’s going on in Iraq, when in fact they’re relying on Iraqi stringers.
JR: You know, I’m certainly not going to argue with the general who is on the ground and has all the facts. And again, my general argument is in terms of opinion and comment. If you look at the analysis of the Iraqi situation, I think what you’ll find in the mainstream media has largely been more realistic, and more rigorous, than what you’ll find in the blogs.
HH: Well, actually, again, I have to disagree with you, because Mudville Gazette spent a year in country as a sergeant there, a number of mil-bloggers are over there from chaplains to generals. For example, I interviewed John Abizaid at length, put it all up on the blog, got his message out there without the filter that you folks tend to put in the way, you folks being mainstream media people. And in fact, Michael Yon, Roggio, the rest of them, they run circles around your folks. And Bill Roggio just spent…embedded with the Iraqi army, for goodness sake, in Fallujah. That’s after a tour in Afghanistan, another tour in Iraq this year. I think maybe there are some isolated instances of good reporting coming out of Iraq by mainstream media people, but I think unless you can come up with three people who have done the same kind of ground-breaking work, or four people that I’ve just cited, I actually think you’re wrong. Are you open to the prospect that you’re wrong on that?
JR: I’m always open to the prospect that I’m wrong. I just don’t see an argument supported by three or four people versus the entire apparatus of the mainstream media. And I guess the other point is, I don’t think that anybody would read my article and come away saying that the mainstream media is infallible, or that it even always does a good job, or even sometimes does a good job. The point, rather, was that the institution, the way that they filter things, tends to increase seriousness and expertise in the purveying of opinion and comment, and I just don’t see that on the internet.
HH: Well, it sounds to me like you’re making the argument that because the mainstream media spends a lot of money maintaining bureaus in Iraq, they must therefore be doing good work.
JR: No, I don’t think that’s it at all. I’m saying that they have an institutional support which vastly increases the professional reporting.
HH: But again, I don’t think that’s by any means at all evident. If you’ve got Roggio running around Fallujah, typing up his notes every night, where you’ve got Michael Yon in Mosul, or you’ve got Totten running around Kurdistan or Lebanon, typing up their notes and putting it out there, the fact that you’ve got a thousand journalists in the Green Zone doesn’t negate the comparable quality of both of those things. I trust the three Americans who are out in the combat land, and I trust military bloggers, of whom there are legions, much, much more than Green Zone bound journalists. Do you?
JR: I certainly think you have to take both into perspective. You know, I am certainly not going to disparage military bloggers, or disparage Bill Roggio, or anything like that. And again, I’m making a general argument here.
HH: Here’s part of your argument on that. “Blogs pursue second order distractions, John Kerry always providing useful material, while leaving unexamined more fundamental issues, say, Iraq.” Joe, we’ll go to break and we’ll come back. But was John Kerry’s assertion that he’d been to Cambodia on Christmas Eve a second order distraction?
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HH: Joe, as I said going into the break, you wrote in your piece from last week, “Blogs pursue second order distractions, John Kerry always providing useful material, while leaving unexamined more fundamental issues, say, Iraq.” When John Kerry made the assertion that he’d spent Christmas Eve in Cambodia, was that a second order distraction for the blogs to go out and conclusively prove that he hadn’t?
JR: No, I don’t think so. What I was referring to in that remark was that John Kerry’s comments before the election, you know, that if you’re stupid, you’ll get stuck in Iraq. You know, that comment.
HH: And do you think that, for example, a more fundamental issue like whether or not Iran goes critical with nukes, is that being better covered by the internet bloggers or by the mainstream media?
JR: I think it’s being covered very well by experts. You know, they’re the people we run on the editorial page, they’re people in academia, they’re people in the government. And I think they’re doing a much better job than a blogger.
HH: So are you familiar with Regime Change Iran?
JR: I’m not.
HH: It works comprehensively to bring news from all around the world concerning Iran, including the best in commentary and analysis. Are you familiar with Victor Davis Hanson?
JR: Of course.
HH: Both of these men are bloggers. They blog prolifically, in fact, and they both have their own blogs. Are they doing a better job? Or are you actually saying that the same thing is being done in both media?
JR: I’m saying the same thing is done in both media. And you know, when you have someone like Victor Davis Hanson, Michael Ledeen, Michael Barone has a blog now, the Becker-Pozner blog, they’re experts who are using technology in new and innovative ways. And they’re doing a very good job of it. I don’t anyone would disagree. But I don’t see that level of quality in the blogosphere as a whole.
HH: But again, when we talk about level of quality, you want to stand up the best of the mainstream media against the worst of the blogosphere. That does not seem to be the argument.
JR: No, I don’t. I think the mainstream media has some very real failings. But talking about the blogs as the solution to everything, I think, is pretty silly.
HH: Well, I don’t think anyone’s done that. We’re talking about whether or not there’s a quality difference between the best of the blogs and the best of the mainstream media. My argument is that there’s not, and in fact, the best of the blogs do a better job than the best of the mainstream media, because the mainstream media is generally not educated enough to tackle complex issues such as, for example, Supreme Court nominations, Court decisions, porkbusting details, or technology advances or whatever expertise might be. That if you match up the best blogger in a field against the best journalist in a field, the best blogger will almost always win. Let me give you an example. You do read Professor Bainbridge?
HH: Do you think there’s anyone in the media, mainstream media, who has any clue as to the security laws of the United States, their application in high profile cases like Martha Stewart, or their evolution through Congressional committee, or through their application by the Securities and Exchange Commission, than Stephen Bainbridge?
JR: Eric Pozner, I think, at the University of Chicago is very good.
HH: No, but I’m talking about in the media. There are other bloggers who are as good as Stephen, because they’re law professors who know what they’re doing. But there isn’t a single reporter out there who understands this stuff to that level.
JR: Well, again…
HH: I mean, they can get a good 10th grade…I mean, 16th grade, college education…but they can’t do this stuff.
JR: Right, which is why you rely on experts, A) in reportage, and B) when we’re talking about the…again, the main thrust of my article, when you’re talking about analysis and interpretation, when an issue comes up, you can write an op-ed about it. You can make your views known. To me, this seems much better than relying on bloggers.
HH: Well, again, I think that’s silly, Joe, because when you say Professor Bainbridge can write an op-ed, the op-ed isn’t going to change by the fact that it appears in print in your newspaper, which he’s written for. In fact, you’re going to be able to get more and deeper analysis and perspective, ask him questions, you get comments back at www.professorbainbridge.com. The blog is a much better vehicle for exploring a complex issue than a newspaper, and when you add in mainstream media agenda journalism and bias, it becomes obviously so. I want to go to the key paragraph in your piece. “The blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared curators would like to think. Journalism requires journalists, who are at least fitfully confronting the digital age. The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage.” I already think I’ve thrown that into some doubt. “Instead, they ride along with the MSM, like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking up the scraps.” In the case of Rathergate, who was the remora fish, and who was the shark there?
JR: Well, Rathergate, I think, is one instance of where the blogs had an actual effect.
HH: So they were not remora fish?
JR: Another one might be the blogs calling into question the reporting of the Associated Press in the case of Jamil Hussein.
HH: But let’s stop for a moment and stick on Rathergate, because people are familiar with it. Who…in your analogy, who’s the remora fish there?
JR: I mean, the story was pushed mainly by the blogs, entirely by the blogs.
HH: But CBS was the remora fish, wasn’t it? CBS was the one who went along for the ride.
JR: I mean, I don’t want to defend CBS here, and I think it was very admirable what the blogs did in that case with Powerline. But instances like that are relatively few in number. You know, I just don’t see the transformative power of the blogs unfold…
HH: Can you tell me…but again, relatively few in number. At what…what do you have by comparable importance or significance, I use Rathergate because it’s familiar to everyone, but I can bring up other ones, of any kind of significant attempt to subvert the political process, which were those forged documents, that the mainstream media discovered and fleshed out? Do any come to mind?
JR: I’m sorry, I don’t understand the question.
HH: Well, since…I’ve just put forward Rathergate as an example of the new media’s power and ability to go out and find stuff. Would you give me something of comparable significance and truthfulness that’s come out the mainstream media in the last year?
JR: I mean, off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything besides the daily push of stories that the media covers.
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HH: Joe, thanks for the time you spent with me today. I’ll carry you over into the next hour, but I don’t want to monopolize your time. I said a half hour, but I’ll keep going, but let me get a couple more in. Why is Eason Jordan no longer at CNN?
JR: It was the remarks he made at Davos.
HH: And who reported those?
JR: Well, it was reported mainly by the blogs. But in that case, the comments seemed, at least from what I heard, from one of the members of our editorial board, and now a columnist for the Wall Street Journal, is that these comments, it was just an off-hand remark, it wasn’t that big of a deal, and I think that’s exactly an example of a second order distraction blown out of proportion by the blogs at the expense of more serious issues.
HH: Well now, Bret’s been a guest on this program many, many times, so I’ll let him speak for himself. You may want to check with him on that. I don’t believe he would agree with that characterization of his opinion of it. But he’s not there, because he made a speech that was picked up by the blogs. They wouldn’t release the transcript, and under growing pressure, he left rather than have CNN cave on that. Now whether or not you consider that a second order distraction is in fact an editorial decision, isn’t it, that you would have made to suppress that story, or give it what? Less play than Green Zone reporting?
JR: It is an editorial distinction, and that’s what the blogosphere mainly lacks, is that it doesn’t have an apparatus in place that screens for, editorially, for seriousness. It’s chaos and entropy. And it doesn’t work very well in criticism, and in terms of serious views.
HH: Iraq the Model doesn’t work very well?
JR: Certainly, Iraq the Model does. As I say, there are all sorts of blogs that you can point to for an isolated incident.
HH: Well, which of these 25 that we went through, don’t work very well? Because I went through the biggest 25 I could come up with. You’re unfamiliar with the theological blogs, and I understand that for whatever reason. But the law blogs work extraordinarily well, the political analysis and original reporting done at places like The Corner, www.townhall.com, my blog, Powerline, is first-rate and superior to everyone. We back and forth with the best in the business for a reason. Which ones don’t work well, other than Fraters Libertas? I’ll give you that.
JR: The point is that the entire system as a whole doesn’t work well. You can find factions and interests here and there that have high quality, the same as you can find in the mainstream media, of good reporting and bad reporting, serious analysis and frivolous analysis. But on the whole, I think that you’ll find much better analysis and commentary in a print publication versus one that you find entirely on the internet.
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HH: We go back to what you said just before the break, that the quality of commentary and analysis is better in mainstream media than it is in new media. Are you familiar with the work of Eugene Robinson at the Washington Post?
JR: Yes, I am.
HH: Do you think it’s serious?
JR: No, I don’t.
HH: Are you familiar with the economic analysis of Paul Krugman at the New York Times?
JR: I am.
HH: Do you think it’s serious?
JR: And you know, you can run through…
HH: I’m going to (laughing)
JR: You can tick off Maureen Dowd and you can tick off all sorts of people at the New York Times…
HH: I think we’ll agree that David Brooks does a good job, right?
HH: And Nicholas Kristoff does great reporting from Sudan when he’s there, right?
HH: But do you think E.J. Dionne is a serious analysis of American politics?
JR: I don’t always agree with him, but I would say yes, he’s serious.
HH: Okay, how about anyone at the Los Angeles Times? Name me anyone at all out there who is serious.
JR: Max Boot.
HH: Max is not…he writes a syndicated column. He writes a column that gets picked up there, but I mean a staff columnist.
JR: I can’t think of one.
HH: There aren’t any. In fact, they’re the worst major newspaper in America for a reason that they’ve worked hard to empty themselves of all discernible talent. If you live in California, then, Joe, are you better served by reading and getting your news from the internet and the blogosphere than by taking the L.A. Times?
JR: Well, you know, I don’t live in California, so I can’t tell you. But the point that I was trying to make is that even if the standards of the mainstream media failed, it doesn’t seem to me to be an argument against just throwing out all standards in favor of the chaos of the internet.
HH: Well, again, the chaos of the internet…let’s take another controversy from this year, the cartoons depicting Mohammed.
HH: Did any mainstream media outlet publish them?
JR: No, they didn’t.
HH: Were they published on the blogosphere?
HH: Who did the better job of providing information to the public?
JR: Well, the reason a lot of newspapers didn’t publish them is because they were in poor taste. And that’s an editorial judgment, of which you can agree or disagree.
HH: But the fact that none…no one in the mainstream media published them…by the way, I did not think it was wise to publish them, so I share the judgment of the mainstream media there. But the judgment of the mainstream media was uniform. What’s that tell you about it? It’s not journalism, Joe. It’s a club.
JR: (laughing) I mean, I don’t know what to say.
HH: Obviously (laughing). Let me ask you about Benedict’s speech on Islam, because I think what you got down to, you gave it away in the first hour, is that you think the serious stuff is covered by the mainstream media, and the frivolous stuff is dealt with by the bloggers. It’s exactly the opposite. The blogs…Little Green Footballs, do you read that?
HH: What do you think of it?
JR: I think it’s fairly well done.
HH: Every single day, it wrestles with the most difficult issues. What about the idea that when Benedict gave his speech that excited so much controversy, did the mainstream media do a good job of covering that?
JR: I think…yes, I do.
HH: You did? Did you see it reprinted anywhere in its context?
JR: I can’t recall, no.
HH: No, it was not. I spent a lot of time on that, looking for any media coverage of…give me the speech, give me a translation of the speech. In fact, on my blog, we had Father Fessio, his student, explain it. We had Albert Mohler on his blog going into the theology of it. We had John Mark Reynolds and Mark Roberts and a whole bunch of people examining it at length, and in detail, what he said and what he intended to say, by theologians examining a theologian’s argument. There’s nothing like that in the mainstream media, Joe, is there?
JR: There is. First of all, you know, you have a whole apparatus of conservative opinion journals that do the kind of thing that you just talked about. But to go back to what you said about reprinting the speech, you know, the New York Times used to reprint every major speech that was done. They don’t do that anymore. That, to me, seems to be a failing of the standards of the mainstream media. What I would like to see is trying to create an institutional culture such as the mainstream media, that has restored the debate standards that they’ve had. I mean, I don’t think that anybody could read the article that I wrote and come away thinking that I’m in favor of everything the mainstream media does, or even that they do a particularly tremendous job. I think there’s been a major failing all over the place, and I wrote the article, I thought, as a useful corrective for some of the claims that are made on behalf of the blogosphere against the mainstream media.
HH: Well, you did write in here that the technology of ink on paper is highly advanced, and has over centuries accumulated a major institutional culture that screens editorially for originality, expertise, and seriousness.
HH: But I think I’ve given you example after example where they are not original, they are not expert, and they certainly aren’t serious on many of these thing, and that what they are is biased, left-wing pastry shops for the Democratic Party. And while the Wall Street Journal stands apart from that tradition, in large part, the attempt to defend mainstream media at the expense of the blogs is, I think, very diverting, and I think hurts your business, in many respects, because they still don’t get it. I don’t think, Joe…let me ask you this. This is a hard question to answer. You’re 24? 22? 23?
HH: Okay, you’re 23 years old. The Wall Street Journal allows you to set forth with a piece of writing that was mocked, in large part, across the blogosphere, for its many inaccuracies, satirized by people like Tigerhawk and Ace of Spades, and yet you’re defending mainstream media’s accumulated institutional culture that screens for originality, expertise and seriousness. Does your piece represent that tradition?
JR: Yes, I think it does.
HH: And so, what was original in your piece?
JR: I mean, what was original is that everyone is…you know, Time Magazine says the person of the year is everyone. What was original was that everyone seems to have acquiesced to the idea that technology and blogs are going to sort of revolutionize media and make it completely new, and I just don’t see the evidence for it.
HH: And what’s your expertise in blogs?
JR: The expertise, in this case, is criticism. It’s the exercise of judgment and taste.
HH: Joe, you’re 23.
HH: Can you be expert in anything? And I’m serious here.
JR: I think I can write a thoughtful article, even though I’m 23.
HH: That wasn’t…the question is, can you be expert in anything at 23?
JR: No, I don’t think so.
HH: And seriousness…you managed to slander, in large part, the 25 blogs about which we specifically discussed your familiarity with, because you didn’t follow the rule of exception, which is…by the way, let me except out this and this and this…
JR: Whoa, whoa, whoa. What do you mean, I didn’t follow the rule of exception? Throughout, everything’s qualified.
HH: Where do you mention one blog in a specific complimentary fashion?
JR: I didn’t mention any in a specific complimentary fashion.
HH: But yet you often mention them all in a critical fashion. For example, “Because political blogs are predictable, they are excruciatingly boring.” Those are all political blogs, and there is no exception.
JR: By the time you get to that point in the article, it’s obvious that I’m talking in a general sense. You know, it seems ridiculous to say…you know, you can disparage the MSM. That’s looking at it all as a whole. And you have to qualify that every time you mention MSM? Oh, it’s typical MSM behavior, except for sometimes when the MSM does good work?
HH: Well, we just had a conversation where we were talking about the New York Times, and I excepted out David Brooks, and occasionally Nicholas Kristoff. That’s the rule of exception, because I don’t want anyone to think that all of the columnists are buffoons at the New York Times when David Brooks works there, Nicholas Kristoff occasionally does good work. You didn’t practice that, and so that it has caught up with you, I don’t think you should object to that. When you write that with irony present only in its conspicuous absence, do you really believe there’s no irony on the internet? On the blogs?
JR: (laughing) Again, anybody who reads this piece will realize that it’s a general argument.
HH: Do you read Lileks?
JR: From time to time.
HH: Is his humor cringe making?
JR: I mean, we’re having a semantic argument here.
HH: No, we’re having an argument about youth, actually.
– – – – –
HH: Joe, do you regret writing this piece?
JR: No, I don’t.
HH: Do you know who Joseph Epstein is?
JR: I do.
HH: Do you admire his work?
HH: You see, if Joseph Epstein were to write a piece like this, which I can’t imagine him doing it, it would give me pause. But I also know that he would take the time to be very specific in his criticisms, and very…especially careful to except out that which he did not intend to strike at. But you did nothing of that.
JR: After we get off the phone, I’ll send you a Joseph Epstein opinion on the blogs. He actually published it with the Wall Street Journal.
HH: And what did he say?
JR: I can’t think of it altogether, but one of his main points was that the word blog sounds exactly like a French word pronounced the same way, which just sort of means tediousness and irrelevancy, something on that order. Again, I don’t have it in front of me.
HH: And are you aware of what he said about newspapers?
JR: Absolutely. He’s very down on them.
HH: He does not read them, except for the obituaries. And so, I think what you’ve just concluded, is that we’re at the same place in Joseph Epstein’s estimate. He doesn’t like journalism, but it’s all journalism. It’s all just text, Joe, but I want you to be able to make the argument…what is it about this vast collection of pensions, and time servers, and tenured editorialists, and beat reporters covering car crashes, that makes it better than the blogosphere?
JR: I’m sorry, I’m not following the question.
HH: What is journalism, in your eye, that blogosphere isn’t? What’s so great about the mainstream media?
JR: I think it’s people who are devoting their lives to covering the news, to interpreting the news, to bring expertise to people, and looking at the idea of standards and merit, which is I really don’t think that on the whole, you get that on the blogs. You just have chaos.
HH: How many journalists do you know, outside of the Wall Street Journal?
JR: You know, I would say ten, fifteen.
HH: Again, the pronouncements just don’t add up…it should be more cautious than that. Let me close with a little tiny example. I mentioned www.trigeekdreams.com. It’s a blog for triathletes.
HH: Do you think he, or a sporting news reporter, is going to cover a race better?
JR: I would probably say the triathlete.
HH: Yes, especially since he’s one of the better L.A. Times journalists going. So the fact that he’s a journalist who was also writing about his avocation on the web, doesn’t that show you how thin your argument is? It’s just…the blogosphere is nothing except a technology. It’s like a printing press. All that matters is who’s working on it.
JR: Well, I mean, I don’t think it’s like a printing press, you know, because a printing press…not just anyone can get a printing press and go out there. And it’s the same with the blogs.
HH: Well, who gave you your printing press at the Wall Street Journal?
JR: I mean, I’m not going to go into how I was hired.
HH: But I mean, an editor did.
HH: So someone made a choice that you were worth reading, or you were worth hiring as a journalist. That person’s choice is what? Informed by fifty years in a culture that’s now gone?
JR: Well, first of all, I don’t think it’s gone, and I think it’s much more valuable than you say it is. And I really do think that trying to restore these institutions is more important than just sort of everybody wins.
HH: How did your piece advance the restoration of those institutions, without its particularity, its specificity with its generalized insult?
JR: I think it was a useful corrective to some of the triumphalism that we hear about blogs every day.
HH: Do you think it corrected anything?
JR: I think it did for a lot of people, yes.
JR: I mean, I would rather not go into my personal correspondence of the feedback I got. I got a lot of positive notes, and a lot that were…
HH: Did Tim Rutten write you?
HH: Did Tim Rutten write you?
HH: Mark Halperin?
HH: I just…some of the old MSM’ers who hate the blogs…they probably want to hire you immediately. But in retrospect, if you wrote it again today, would you change anything?
JR: I don’t think I would, no. I might qualify it a little bit more.
HH: Well, that would be a start. And do you want to finish off by saying any blogs in particular you admire and look forward to reading every morning?
JR: Sure. I think Ross Douthat at the American Scene, he writes for the Atlantic Monthly. I think he’s very good, consistently thoughtful. Michael Barone I like, Greg Manhew (sp), you know, the bloggers at the New Republic and the New Criterion, and a lot of the ones you mentioned, certainly.
HH: Who did you vote for, for president?
JR: I voted for Bush.
HH: And was that the first time you voted?
JR: No, it wasn’t.
HH: Did you vote for Bush versus Gore?
JR: I wasn’t 18 in 2000.
HH: And so generally speaking, you’re a conservative.
JR: Certainly, yes.
HH: And you believe that mainstream media is in pretty good shape right now?
JR: No, I don’t think it’s in good shape at all. I just don’t think that we should abandon it in favor of blogs, to just sort of throw out all standards and…
HH: Well, who’s suggesting that?
JR: …just sort of pick from whatever we find on the internet. It’s silly.
HH: Again, now I’ve got to keep you over. Who is suggesting that? Who is suggesting that you pick, that you openly, randomly browse to Technorati, and read as gospel there? I mean, I read a list of Powerline, Hughhewitt.com, Instapundit, the Volokh Conspiracy, National Review, Bainbridge, Althouse, Roberts, Reynolds, Mohler, Malkin, Captain’s Quarters, Yon, Gazette, Black Five, Ace of Spades, Eject! Eject! Eject!, Fourth Rail, Counterterrorism Blog, Michael Totten, Yoni the Blogger, Iraq the Model, and Truth Laid Bear. That’s not random. That’s a collection of people who’ve been, each one of whom, I guess, will have lapped you a couple of times in the business of journalism.
JR: Yes, certainly. I’m just starting out. I’m not trying to make a claim on behalf of myself, certainly. But just to…I think people should think seriously about the direction that our media is going in.
HH: And what do you want them to do? Stop reading the blogs?
JR: No, certainly not.
HH: So they should read the blogs?
HH: Because there’s value there.
JR: I would like to see a level of quality increased everywhere.
HH: At these blogs that I mentioned?
JR: No, those are perfectly fine blogs, Mr. Hewitt. And that’s not my argument. I’m saying that on the whole, that the blogosphere is chaos, and that we should try to introduce some sort of order, or checks and balances…
HH: What? Through centralized planning of the blogosphere?
JR: No, certainly not. But I think the institutions of the mainstream media, as it’s described, have a valuable role to play, and I would like to see those institutions rescued, as opposed to just turning everything over to everyone.
HH: All right. Joe Rago, you’ve been very generous with your time. Continued good fortune to you, and a Happy New Year, and I look forward to having you back again sometime.
End of interview.