Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Internet News?

The latest issue of The New York Review has a piece by Michael Massing entitled "The News About the Internet." In many ways it is a response to the testimony given to the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet given last May. More specifically, Massing seems to have been piqued by David Simon's use of the word "leeches" in his testimony before that Subcommittee. He described Simon's language as being "particularly barbed" and proposed an alternative point of view:

Over the past few months alone, a remarkable amount of original, exciting, and creative (if also chaotic and maddening) material has appeared on the Internet. The practice of journalism, far from being leeched by the Web, is being reinvented there, with a variety of fascinating experiments in the gathering, presentation, and delivery of news. And unless the editors and executives at our top papers begin to take note, they will hasten their own demise.

I have a fair amount of respect for past Massing articles in The New York Review; but nothing provokes in me quite an adrenaline rush of skepticism as does any form of the verb "reinvent." It always seems to carry a promise of good things to come without ever saying very much about what those things are or when they may be expected.

Nevertheless, as a result of reading Massing's article, I have at least one good thing to say about Internet technology. Because his article had a URL, I could direct Firefox to it and quickly scan his text for occurrences of the "edit" stem. I discovered that almost every occurrence (the one exception being debatable) refers to a position on an organization chart rather than the actual work done by the occupant of that position. In other words Massing does not seem to have a problem with the fact that the blogosphere is almost entirely (again with exceptions being debatable) a world without editors. Now I suspect that he would prefer to say that bloggers are self-editors and then propose that one of the metrics of the quality of writing involves the quality of self-editing. For me, however, self-editing reminds me of Abraham Lincoln's joke about the man who acts as his own lawyer having a fool for a client. I might not be so extreme as to say that any editing that is not fully detached from the writing process is not editing at all, but I have certainly flirted with that position!

The process of editing has been a favorite topic for me on this blog. As I write this piece, I see that I have used the label 32 times. As in the past I continue to believe that this process is best understood within the framework of the medieval trivium of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. My guess is that I shall not get any argument over editorial checking for grammar, not to mention spelling. Whether or not grammar-checking software will ever be as good as current spell-checkers, however, is not the point. No matter how good those technologies are, good editing must still scale the hurdles of logic and rhetoric.

Where logic is concerned, we have all heard anecdotes about how Internet technology has augmented our powers of fact-checking. However, logic is about more than facts. It is also about inferences made from those facts, more specifically, whether or not those inferences are valid. This brings us back to my own analysis of the Senate Subcommittee hearings, in which I revisited the question posed by Nicholas Carr in his Atlantic Monthly article, "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" Carr did not address logic in his article, but I would propose that those who are too heavily dependent on search engines and the snippets of text they return may, indeed, be losing their ability to recognize when an inference is valid. Indeed, they may be oblivious to whether or not a snippet is actually the product of a logical inference. In other words, in addition of all of its other injuries, Google may not only be robbing us of editing as a profession but may also be eroding our capacity for editing, at least where logic is concerned.

The "state of the art" of editing for rhetoric is probably even worse. We have become so susceptible to rhetorical manipulation that recognizing when we are being manipulated is even more difficult than recognizing an invalid inference. At least in this case we cannot lay the blame on Google. If we need to find a target of blame for why our sensitivity to rhetoric has been so blunted, we need look no further than the advertising industry; and we do not even have to look at advertising on the Internet. It is, of course, still possible to learn the nuts and bolts of rhetorical machinery. The problem is whether or not denizens of the blogosphere feel it is worth taking the time to do so.

Sadly, one can find a failure of the editing process even in Massing's article (which, as a subscriber to The New York Review for more years than I can recall, I found particularly painful). This is most evident in his discussion of the work of Glenn Greenwald. He promotes Greenwald with the following text:

In contrast to the short, punchy posts favored by most bloggers, Greenwald offers a single daily essay of two thousand to three thousand words. In each, he draws on extensive research, amasses a daunting array of facts, and, as [Eric] Boehlert puts it [in his book Bloggers on the Bus], builds his case "much like an attorney does."

Massing's use of the simile is actually deceptive, since Greenwald is an attorney. This makes him an interesting data point, particularly where the editing question is involved. It would probably be fair to say that one cannot be a successful lawyer without a firm command of logic, grammar, and rhetoric; and I would go further and propose that success may depend on how well one can apply those skills to oneself. Thus, it may be that attorneys are more professionally qualified to edit themselves than journalists are, in which case, comparing Greenwald to the other bloggers Massing examines would constitute a clear instance of a category error! This might then explain the major issue that Massing has with Greenwald's essays:

As well-argued and provocative as I found many of Greenwald's postings, they often seem oblivious to the practical considerations policymakers must contend with.

For my part I would argue (provocatively?) that lawyers do not just seem oblivious to such practical considerations. They are oblivious to them when they might impede the more important process of making one's case. Greenwald is just being a lawyer, and he is damned good at it!

The problem is that Massing has ignored what I have called "the primary rule for reading any text on the Internet," which is caveat lector. There are no end of ways for the Internet reader to get ensnared by traps. Many readers learn how to be wary of the newspapers they read; some even learn how to beware the commercials they "read" on television. Nevertheless, when it comes to reading, the Internet is more dangerous than both of these worlds combined. When Massing praises the content he finds on the Internet, he does so as a reader well enough informed to avoid those traps; but he seems to ignore the question of whether or not he speaks for everyone else reading contributions to the blogosphere.

One point that Massing seems to have recognized is that the world of "Internet speed" has become, as I have put it, "a world without reflection." His response is to praise Slate for requiring each of its writers "to take off six weeks to work on longer projects." I find no fault with Slate making this policy, but it leads me to wonder whether it might cultivate an attitude that reflection can only be done while on vacation! If this is an indicator of the "reinvention" of journalism, then I fear it as much as I fear those who go around evangelizing "life-long learning" but never seem to practice it.

I suppose what scares me most is not the future of newspapers but the future of that practice of journalism that served as the focus of Massing's discussion. From this point of view, Simon's concerns about leeching is secondary. As Paul Ricœur observed, all writing involves some level of appropriation. It could not be otherwise: Texts only make sense when they can be anchored to other texts. The real concern is whether or not our capacity for the effective use of principles of logic, grammar, and rhetoric are being eroded; and, in his efforts to promote the merits of the blogosphere, Massing seems to have convinced me that such erosion has progressed even further than I had previously feared.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Read this sentence again and think about Massing's grammar and diction: "As well-argued and provocative as I found many of Greenwald's postings, they often seem oblivious to the practical considerations policymakers must contend with."

What a mess. His postings seem oblivious? What does that mean? The NYRB is usually pretty tightly edited. Is everyone off on summer vacation?