How Reporters Who Attack Bloggers Are Like Beauticians

Bloggers like Glenn Greenwald and Digby continue to make excellent points about mainstream journalists and their unwarranted attacks on bloggers. Here's one aspect of this conflict that's been overlooked, however: Reporters' ad hominem attacks on bloggers represent the enforcement tactics of an informal guild looking to protect its economic interests by any means necessary.

Left-wing bloggers continue to tear their hair and ask why far more vicious attacks on the press by conservatives like Limbaugh and Ann Coulter don't trigger the indignation and slashing counterattacks that better documented and more civil progressive blog critiques do.

The answer is simple: Coulter and Limbaugh don't threaten the franchise. They may differ from David Broder in Joe Klein in style and content, but they are part of the same economic system. As highly-paid pundits, they are in the guild. That means they don't threaten the economic security of Klein, Broder, Brian Williams, and other blog-bashers.

That doesn't mean that Broder, Klein, and the others believe themselves to be acting in cynical self-interest when they attack bloggers. On the contrary. They're genuinely outraged and angry. This is typical of guild members acting according to well-defined social and economic models. The outrage they feel is genuine, but they haven't looked into themselves well enough to find its true source. If they did, the reason for the contradiction between their anger at progressive blogs and their tolerance toward conservative hate speech would become apparent even to them.

This is the classic social behavior of actors in a guild model. Starting in the medieval Islamic world and later in renaissance Europe, professional artisans and scholars began forming associations that had some common characteristics. First, no one could practice the profession without a lengthy period of apprenticeship. Secondly, members of the guild offered professional certification that all practitioners of the craft had the necessary skills and training. Without guild certification, nobody could practice the trade.

These two guild-like objections form the basis of almost all journalist invective toward bloggers. First, they complain, bloggers haven't come up the hard way through the newsroom. (Neither have Coulter or Limbaugh, but they received special dispensation from a certified guild employer - Fox News.) Bloggers are "a guy in his apartment named Vinny," to quote Williams. Second, nobody has anointed them as professionals, so how dare they critique us?

That's why so much of the journalists' anger is genuine. When groups like beauty parlor operators, real estate agents, or mortuary workers elevate themselves to "professional" status, they begin by conveying outrage over incompetent or unauthorized work in their field. Then they create a formal or informal certification process, one that limits entry into the field and therefore keeps wages artificially high. Last, they reinforce their social bond by continuing to exchange horror stories - the corpse whose face collapsed during the open-casket ceremony, or the scalp that was disfigured from improper bleaching.

Beauticians are genuinely upset and angry when rogue operators enter the field. Unlike journalists, however, they also enforce a written set of standards and will suspend a beautician's license for repeated violations.

That's where journalists fall short of fellow guild members like beauticians, realtors, or morticians. They have an informal association - the Society of Professional Journalists - with a written standard of conduct. Yet they inevitably fail to censure their members even when they seem to egregiously violate those standards.

They're more than happy to make examples of junior members for transparent fraud, like Stephen Glass, but remain silent when the more visible members of the profession violate its ethical code. That's not just the behavior of a professional guild - it's the behavior of a guild in moral decline.

That leaves the job of policing the journalistic profession to bloggers, and the progressive blogosphere has become an effective watchdog for the mainstream press. No wonder the journalists are so angry. These bloggers aren't members of the guild, and yet they dare criticize those who are.

That puts the complaints of "incivility" in context, too. Talk radio hosts may use viler terms than any liberal blogger, but that doesn't trigger the outrage because they're also part of the guild. Their rudeness is seen as a professional tool, rather than the disrespectful behavior of disorganized rabble. That's the sociology of guild reinforcement at work, folks.

At least Klein acknowledges the economic nature of the struggle. As Glenn Greenwald recounts, Klein recently said " ... at this point, we're pretty well battered. We're losing advertising revenue." He added, "And unless we can actually have the revenue to go out there and the credibility to report these issues, all of these right-wing talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh, and the left-wing bloggers who are parasites on our reporting, are going to have nothing to do but sit home and twiddle their thumbs and opine about things they have no data for."

Either bloggers should be silent, says Klein, or they'll lose their raw data. The other option - that of actually addressing those misstatements, sloppy reporting, and distortions of fact - never occurs to him. And why should it? To acknowledge the validity of the criticism would be to recognize the limits of his guild. And that's not in his sociological or economic self-interest.

In other words, Klein and the other journalists are no different from beauticians shaking their heads over an unauthorized shop's bad work, except in one respect: Beauticians do a better job of policing their own members.

You're seeing the naked self-interest of journalists being revealed just as clearly as that of the beauticians. And in the words of the late Warren Zevon, it ain't that pretty at all.

(more RJ Eskow commentary on the media here)

Other blogs: