Old Journalists and New Facts

It’s not hard to see that old-style print media and journalists are still torn over what, exactly, the Age of Blogging means for them. For Michiko Kakutani of The New York Times, it’s part of a our culture’s newfound “enshrinement of subjectivity” — a fancy way of saying we don’t really care whether something’s right or not, so long as it’s about us and our feelings. She might be right about the general trend in society, but I fear she’s unfair, if not a little subjective, herself, about the role of blogging and the Internet in the case she mentions: James Frey’s “A Million Little Pieces”.

Kakutani’s scathing look at the controversy surrounding the failed fiction-turned-successful memoir – When nonfiction means facts with a flourish in today’s International Herald Tribune — says

“A Million Little Pieces,” which became the second-highest-selling book of 2005 in America (behind only “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince”), clearly did not sell because of its literary merits. Its narrative feels willfully melodramatic and contrived, and is rendered in prose so self-important and mannered as to make the likes of Robert James Waller (“The Bridges of Madison County”) and John Gray (“Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus”) seem like masters of subtlety.

She sees the book as riding the crest of two 1990s waves — memoirs and recovery-movement reminiscences — which in turn also coincided with

culture’s enshrinement of subjectivity – “moi” as a modus operandi for processing the world. Cable news is now peopled with commentators who serve up opinion and interpretation instead of news, just as the Internet is awash in bloggers who trade in gossip and speculation instead of fact. For many of these people, it’s not about being accurate or fair. It’s about being entertaining, snarky or provocative – something that’s decidedly easier and less time-consuming to do than old fashioned investigative reporting or hard-nosed research.

This is where I think she glosses over the role of the Internet. For sure, the world of blogging and the Web is full of tripe — self-indulgent whining, where ‘feeling’ is more important than ‘knowing’ — and a place where razor-tongued opinion counts more than well-informed reason. But wait a minute. Wasn’t Frey unmasked, not by a mainstream news publication, but on a web site called The Smoking Gun, as she herself acknowledges? (The Smoking Gun is owned by Court TV, a cable network, that uses ‘material obtained from government and law enforcement sources, via Freedom of Information requests, and from court files nationwide’.)

The truth is that the Internet reflects real life, meaning that there’s both great and awful sitting side by side. We people who spend time there know this already; we’ve taught ourselves to quite quickly — 50 milliseconds, to be precise — judge the merits of a website. It wasn’t exactly a blogger that unmasked Frey, but if this tawdry little affair is to be remembered, it should include acknowledgement that, despite being atop of the NYT non-fiction bestseller list for 15 weeks, it was an obscure web site, not a broadsheet journalist, who thought to dig into the truth behind the story.

19. January 2006 by jeremy
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