If the news media were a stock market, the blue chips would be tanking. The establishment names that everyone used to trust have crashed in credibility and prestige, and are now living through their own Great Depression. Top executives at bastions such as The New York Times, CBS News, and CNN have been leaping from the highest windows in the business.
Meanwhile, the market is in love with a bunch of little start-ups that weren't even around five years ago. Bloggers, one-person media outlets, are the hot darlings of this feverish moment. Like the New Economy stocks of the 1990s, these newcomers are sharp, energetic, and fearless.
Remember all the Internet stocks that were going to change the world and make everyone rich? Blogs are the news trade's equivalent—without the getting-rich part. Blogs aren't mainly about money, not yet. They're about taking power and control away from the old brand names, tipping the bloated sacred cows off their pedestals. Just as establishment media outlets have always dreamed about bringing down presidents, bloggers dream about bringing down editors-in-chief and news anchors.
The most recent casualty was CNN's top news executive, Eason Jordan, who resigned after he made a strange statement in Davos, Switzerland, suggesting that journalists in Iraq have been targeted by the U.S. military. It was bloggers who broke the story and effectively drove Jordan from his job.
"Bloggers as News Media Trophy Hunters," The New York Times headlined on February 14, in a story that was picked up across the country. "Some in the traditional media are growing alarmed," the story said, "as they watch careers being destroyed by what they see as the growing power of rampant, unedited dialogue."
Rampant, unedited dialogue! Mercy me, what is democracy coming to?
And why are we having all this intra-media warfare, anyway? Because we can, and because it's good for us. Anyone who isn't exhilarated by the bloggers and the havoc they're wreaking has lost touch with what American journalism at its best has always been about: making trouble to get at the truth.
Turning the heat up on powerful people, questioning their work, and undermining their authority is the media's job. Of course, nobody ever expected we'd do it to our own powerful selves, that blogger spies would infiltrate the grand councils of Davos and rat out a media muck-a-muck. How wicked of them.
The current moment is troubling for a lot of people precisely because it's so cannibalistic. In the last half of the 20th century, the media consolidated a great deal of power for themselves in a tiny tribe of supreme outlets. Since those outlets had strong tendencies toward the center (because that's where the big audiences and the money are), it was inevitable that a lot of news consumers—those who aren't so centrist—would be unhappy with the product.
When the Internet came along, it offered those people a way to vent their dissatisfaction. The result is a fairly constant stream of media-versus-media scandals. Some, like the Jordan story, are driven by conservative bloggers. Others, like the bizarre, ongoing tale of former White House reporter James D. Guckert (aka "Jeff Gannon"), come from the liberal side.
In a way, this stuff makes the media look even more narcissistic than usual. But it's also shedding new light on a profession that's always been terrible at self-scrutiny. If Americans had become so pious and protective of the media establishment that they wouldn't dare question its authority, I'd be more worried.
Still, is this really a revolution? Bloggers are a fantastic addition to the media club, but I don't see them taking it over. So far they've proven adept at several tasks: 1) bird-dogging factual errors and other crimes that the mainstreamers are ignoring; 2) speaking in a chatty, irreverent voice that's refreshing after decades of stilted establishment formality; and 3) having fun—a skill the mainstreamers lost long ago.
One day this week, I popped in at Gawker.com and happened on a little item that linked the Michael Jackson trial to a particular Simpsons episode in a brilliant new comic synthesis. It was a moment you just can't have with The Wall Street Journal.
What independent bloggers don't have is the resources or, in most cases, the skills to do the heavy journalistic lifting that the big American outlets still do better than anyone, and will continue to do for a very long time. You can carp all you want about the toadying White House press corps, but we'd miss them if they were gone—and the bloggers would really miss them.
Not so long ago, it seemed a bunch of silicon geniuses were truly reinventing the economy. Farewell, General Motors and Exxon. The future was going to be all about sexy New Economy companies with names like Razorfish.
It didn't work out that way. Consumers didn't stop needing the products that the old stalwarts made and sold—basic stuff like cars, plywood, and breakfast cereal. Similarly, media consumers are not about to abandon their desire for solid, middle-of-the-road news from the old, largely trustworthy, still impressive establishment outlets.
We're having a Dutch tulip moment with the bloggers. This, too, shall pass.