Mark Bowden is a seriously good reporter, and his piece in the new Atlantic, “The Story Behind the Story,” is one that every student of today’s mutating media should read. Bowden traces the route by which the soundbite that came to define, though not derail, Sonia Sotomayor’s Supreme Court nomination entered the media bloodstream. I can wholeheartedly recommend the reporting in Bowden’s piece, but I must take issue with some of his interpretation.
The “wise Latina” clip, it turns out, was first unearthed by a conservative blogger named Morgen Richmond and published on his blog, called VerumSerum. And the problem with that, Bowden suggests, is that Richmond, being a partisan in search of ammunition rather than a journalist in search of truth, presented it to the world without making an effort to understand it or put it in context — to see that, in fact, Sotomayor wasn’t saying anything that outrageous at all: As Bowden puts it, “Her comment about a ‘wise Latina woman’ making a better judgment than a ‘white male who hasnâ€™t lived that life’ referred specifically to cases involving racial and sexual discrimination.”
Bowden credits Richmond as “a bright and fair-minded fellow,” but argues that his “political bias made him tone-deaf to the context and import of Sotomayorâ€™s remarks. Bear in mind that he was looking not simply to understand the judge, but to expose her supposed hidden agenda.”
…he makes no bones about his political convictions or the purpose of his research and blogging. He has some of the skills and instincts of a reporter but not the motivation or ethics. Any news organization that simply trusted and aired his editing of Sotomayorâ€™s remarks, as every one of them did, was abdicating its responsibility to do its own reporting. It was airing propaganda. There is nothing wrong with reporting propaganda, per se, so long as it is labeled as such. None of the TV reports I saw on May 26 cited VerumSerum.com as the source of the material, which disappointed but did not surprise Richmond and Sexton.
The trouble with all this is that Bowden is focusing his ire on the wrong people. Richmond is not, as far as I know, claiming to be a journalist — and yet, as Bowden admits, he is actually “fair-minded” enough to feel that the Sotomayor quote was maybe not that big a deal. Surely the failure here is on the part of the TV news organizations that turned it into a marquee soundbite without looking more deeply into it. Wasn’t that their job, their process, their vetting — the safeguard that ostensibly distinguishes them from the unwashed blogging masses? Aren’t they the ones who are supposed to be after truth rather than scalps?
Blogs may have helped accelerated gotcha journalism, but hit pieces and skeletons-in-closets existed long before their advent. The partisan warfare around Clarence Thomas’s nomination far outdid the Sotomayor hearings, and Anita Hill’s charges — whatever your view of them — required no blog posts to ignite their conflagration. The Web has crowdsourced opposition research, but the conflicts that motivate it have been around for ages.
It is television that creates soundbites; the Web at least allows for far more context and nuance, though it does not always deliver them. I do not understand how Bowden could fail to see this. He writes (of Richmond and his co-bloggers):
I would describe their approach as post-journalistic. It sees democracy, by definition, as perpetual political battle. The bloggerâ€™s role is to help his side. Distortions and inaccuracies, lapses of judgment, the absence of context, all of these things matter only a little, because they are committed by both sides, and tend to come out a wash. Nobody is actually right about anything, no matter how certain they pretend to be. The truth is something that emerges from the cauldron of debate. No, not the truth: victory, because winning is way more important than being right. Power is the highest achievement. There is nothing new about this. But we never used to mistake it for journalism. Today it is rapidly replacing journalism, leading us toward a world where all information is spun, and where all â€œnewsâ€ is unapologetically propaganda.
“The blogger’s role is to help his side.” This is sometimes true, but no more definitive than to say, “The TV newsperson’s role is to help his side.” It is a broad-brush dismissal of an entire class of writers who are actually far more diverse in their goals and techniques. It is no more accurate than the carping of the extremists (of both left and right) who tar all “MSM” journalists with the sins of a minority of hacks or ideologues. It’s disheartening to see a writer of Bowden’s stature placing himself on that level.
There are pundits and news-show hosts who earn our trust as straight shooters, and there are others for whom partisanship plainly trumps truth. There are reporters who aim to shoot straight, and others who hide their own blatant partisanship behind a scrim of ersatz objectivity. In the end, all we can do is find individuals and institutions who, based on their record and their willingness to show their process, seem to place truth ahead of “victory.” Such individuals and institutions are no rarer on the Web, and among bloggers, than among the old guard of journalism. If the public is being ill-served by echo-chamber coverage and shallow sound-bite gotcha clips, the cable news channels bear primary responsibility. Bowden’s own narrative of the Sotomayor “story behind the story” is just the latest demonstration.
BONUS LINK: Here’s Richmond’s thoughtful response to Bowden.