When in July of 1816 a crude raft, constructed in haste, was found floating off the coast of Mauritania in West Africa, a terrible story began to emerge, piece by grisly piece. A French frigate, the Méduse, had run aground. Of the four hundred-odd people sailing on it, a hundred and forty-seven were squeezed out of the lifeboats by a lack of space. Food and water on the raft ran out almost immediately. Some, if not all fifteen of its famished and deranged survivors became transitional cannibals before a rescue ship arrived.
Delinquent authority was blamed both for the wreck and for the mismanagement of its consequences. The Wikipedia notes:
The event became an international scandal, in part because its cause was widely attributed to the incompetence of the French captain acting under the authority of the recently restored French monarchy.
The saga sprang to mind some weeks after an actual human embodiment of one of this blog’s tutelary spirits introduced me – for an unrelated reason — to The Raft of the Medusa, as the painting by Théodore Géricault is known in the Anglo-Saxon world. It was reproduced in the segment of Julian Barnes’ A History of the World in 10 ½ Chapters (1989) that coolly dissects the tragedy.
Possibly because of a passing remark by the journalist Tina Brown — ‘No one eats their young (or themselves) more hungrily than journalists,’ — one portion of Barnes’ account of the wreck’s aftermath read, to me, like a foreshadowing of bloggers castigating print media for failing to prepare for electronic publishing’s consequences:
Savigny and Corréard, survivors and co-authors of the first account of the shipwreck, petitioned the government, seeking compensation for the victims and punishment for the guilty officers. Rebuffed by institutional justice, they appealed to the wider courts of public opinion with their book. Corréard subsequently set up as a publisher and pamphleteer with a shop called At the Wreck of the Medusa; it became a meeting-place for political malcontents.
Somewhere in his meditation on Géricault’s tableau, Barnes suggests that one figure, the muscular old man (holding the pale boy) who, he imagines, has concluded that the ship barely discernible on the horizon will not save them – ‘incites us to read [the picture] as an image of hope being mocked.’
False hope struck me as another parallel between the painting and some print journalists’ reactions to watching natural selection at work in the evolution of communication tools. Last January, for instance, Simon Jenkins wrote with supremely ill-advised confidence in a column titled ‘Old is New’ about print staging a triumphant comeback supposedly in the form of printed blogs (think handwritten newspaper):
As for the Jeremiahs who tell me that I and my medium are doomed to litter the fish-shop gutter, I have news. In San Francisco, capital of Silicon Valley and boom town of the internet, innovators have devised the latest in computerised technodazzle. They claim to be able to gather the best writing from the internet, download it and reproduce it
They are using “paper”.
This sensation from the cradle of the electronic revolution is called The Printed Blog.
The ghost of Gutenberg has returned to live in San Francisco, only to die laughing. I repeat, old is new. Prepare to meet thy past.
How Jenkins felt entitled to overripe sarcasm, apparently without any fact-checking at all, is baffling. Had he picked up a telephone, he might have discovered that virtually no inhabitant of that city has ever heard of or seen a copy of this putative publication.
The favourite argument of print media Muggles lashing the Blogosphere is that no one in it can be trusted to care about truth or accuracy.
Yet Jenkins’ smug conclusion wasn’t and isn’t just wholly unwarranted — on the evidence so far. He managed to make two errors so transparently ruinous for his thesis that he deserves to be hurled overboard by mutineers, as some of the incompetent officers on the Méduse’s raft were, and without ceremony. The Printed Blog was invented in Chicago, not San Francisco – which isn’t and never was the ‘capital’ of Silicon Valley. Nor is it the ‘boom town’ of the internet, nor is there any such thing – which would make no sense for a medium defined by ubiquity, interconnection and co-evolution.
So, four mistakes in as many paragraphs by an éminence grise of print journalism – but it’s the Blogosphere that doesn’t let facts get in the way of ranting, and is a monument to unprofessionalism. Yeah, right.
More startling yet was a brazen attempt by The New York Times to subtly credit a fellow-mammoth of the print world, The Daily Telegraph, with one of the greatest scoops ever in British political reporting – and virtually wrest that honour from a freelance journalist, Heather Brooke.
After what reads like a grudging mention of Brooke at the start of the piece,
It began modestly enough back in 2005, when an American freelance writer and journalism teacher living in London, Heather Brooke, entered a request under Britain’s newly promulgated freedom of information act for details of the expense claims of British members of Parliament.
.. America’s old-media journal of record continues,
At one level, the scandal is a rich tale of politicians exploiting a lax system of expenses … At another level, it is a story of a newspaper, The Telegraph, which broke with a reputation as a stuffy publication favored by retired army colonels and blue-rinsed widows to seize what has turned out to be one of Britain’s greatest scoops.
Why does the Torygraph deserve any such encomium – and on the front page, no less – when, like the rest of the Westminster hacks, its reporters on the politico beat failed for decades to write the story hidden in plain sight, begging for exposure?
Instead of a mere nod to Heather Brooke in a paragraph and a half, and awarding the Torygraph a great slobbering kiss, virtually the entire New York Times report should have been about how she made her discovery – and especially, an explanation for the delinquency of the Westminster press corps. So why weren’t those the article’s focal points? Because the independent spirit of the best freelance journalists, paid in rancid peanuts – even those who have learnt their craft in captivity, on the staffs of large newspapers and magazines — is a spirit that irritates their salaried colleagues earning benefits and full pensions, lazy but secure in their well-padded cages.
The simple fact is that freelance journalists are too much like the bogeys keeping the guardians of print media awake at night – I mean us buccaneering bloggers, who are being blamed for all the ills that have beset them.
Here, for instance, is Tina Brown lashing out at the Blogosphere for its criticism of a magazine called Portfolio that came and went in two years, apparently, without my ever seeing it on a newsstand, or cited or quoted or even noticed anywhere:
Some of the unpleasantness was just the usual destructive hostility to process from blogosphere critics that now seems to accompany anything new. Everyone knows that it takes time to get something right, yet the inevitable trial and error of doing so is accompanied by a such a snarkfest of leaks and jeers that it distracts the staff, frightens off new contributors, and panics skittish advertisers.
Poor, fragile dears! And how, pray, do respectable journalists work, if not by following trails of leaks, then conveying what they turn up with entertaining jeers (see Jenkins quotation, above)? A few months ago, I actually welcomed Brown to the Blogosphere. Not that a welcome from a nonentity is anything of consequence, I’ll admit. I only mention it as proof of my willingness to give her the benefit of the doubt – and I used her seeming courageousness to help make a point.
Now, she’s switched to seeing bloggers as a vicious ‘them’.
Would it be reading too much into her furious rant about our unwashed, smelly tribe to wonder whether complaints from investors in The Daily Beast about its inability to meet her projected site traffic estimates explain her ire?
Is it remotely possible that both she and her hairy e-quadruped are headed for the rocks? Until the day before yesterday, when she made her first post in her column for over a month – blogging’s equivalent of a geological era — there even seemed to be a parallel for Julian Barnes’ mention of the single naval officer who was asked, but declined, to join the people piling onto the raft. I mean that her extended absence invited speculation about whether she was thinking of jumping ship. It now looks as if she might have been doing what she’s said of Condoleeza Rice – that Rice ‘knows how to disappear herself for a bit while she recoups and rebrands’ (could that mean, return as something like New Coke, and if not, what?).
What are some other charges that old media people like to fling at bloggers – treating us as if we were all exactly alike, as bigots are prone to do?
Careless prose and being obsessed by trivia – for two. I’ve shown in an earlier post how er, … relaxed … Tina can be as a scribe. The first piece since her re-appearance is a tirade disguised as a lecture about a silly joke by some television host about a politician’s teenage child – a subject so abysmally trivial that it would bore retarded fleas silly. I expect that she chose the topic solely for click-maximisation, since the sexual antics of the insufferable Sarah Palin’s children tend to land them on the cover of People.
But how does that make Brown’s blog different from any common or garden pop-culture blogger’s? I’ve been waiting for a former editor of The New Yorker to raise her game and the quality of gelt-endowed blogging. After her promising start, there’s been nothing but an almighty letdown — certainly for me.