I learned precisely two things from Bill Keller's attack on Arianna Huffington yesterday. First, it turns out that being an oxpecker is a bad thing. And second, The New York Times executive editor has #tigerblood running through his veins.
Somewhere Charlie Sheen must be all deranged smiles as Bill Keller, evidently a high-brow brother-in-arms in fight against soft targets, smokes the dope that is Bill Keller. Not only does he have command of the world's best journalist brigade, he's got an A-list -- and unnamed -- screenwriter buying the option to his life story, a massive horde of Twitter followers hanging on his and his insomniac wife's every word, a spot on a Forbes list, the admiration of Woody Allen and, most impressive of all, the attention of a live blogger. The dude is #winning.
Where Mr. Keller diverges from Mr. Sheen is his ambivalence about it all. We should be paying attention to Mr. Keller's journalists, not, the man says, the awesomeness everyone assigns to him. Blame is to be placed on the media reporters and bloggers described by Mr. Keller in his New York Times Magazine column as "oxpeckers" -- which Merriam-Webster tells me is not a comment on girth but a reference to those little birds that eat dead bugs off the back of rhinos.
And blame for journalism's broader debasement belongs, of course, to Arianna Huffington, who apparently once stole one of Mr. Keller's, uh, points, and on her growing battalion of aggregators.
Last month, when AOL bought The Huffington Post for $315 million, it was portrayed as a sign that AOL is moving into the business of creating stuff -- what we used to call writing or reporting or journalism but we now call "content." Buying an aggregator and calling it a content play is a little like a company's announcing plans to improve its cash position by hiring a counterfeiter.
Not one to take things lying down, despite her presumable preoccupation with the massive layoffs precipitated at AOL by its HuffPo acquisition, Ms. Huffington took the opportunity to feast on some patrician tiger blood. After pointing to the combined AOL-Huffington Post's traffic superiority, she touted her organization's growing journalistic credibility, which has occasionally come at the expense of The Times' talent pool:
And did he not notice that he lost one of his top business reporters, Peter Goodman, to The Huffington Post -- despite his best efforts to keep him? Indeed, on the very day that Keller's column began circulating, we published a piece Goodman edited, a 4,000-word investigation of a for-profit college by Goodman's first hire, Chris Kirkham, a former Washington Post intern. Did he think he came over to aggregate adorable kitten videos? And was he too busy scanning all those lists of "most powerful people" he's on to notice that he also lost one of his top editors, Tim O' Brien, to us?
As craycray as their argument might be, at least Mr. Keller and Ms. Huffington wrote under their own names as they ripped each other apart. This must make Farhad Manjoo, the excellent tech writer for Slate, a happy man. Mr. Manjoo spent some time this week making an excellent case for forbidding anonymous comments on websites. A sample:
What's my beef with anonymity? For one thing, several social science studies have shown that when people know their identities are secret (whether offline or online), they behave much worse than they otherwise would have. Formally, this has been called the "online disinhibition effect," but in 2004, the Web comic Penny Arcade coined a much better name:The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory. If you give a normal person anonymity and an audience, this theory posits, you turn him into a total fuckwad. Proof can be found in thecomments section on YouTube, in multiplayer Xbox games, and under nearly every politics story on the Web. With so many fuckwads everywhere, sometimes it's hard to understand how anyone gets anything out of the Web.
James Fallows' long look at the state of media in The Atlantic didn't break a ton of new ground, but it did yield some predictably smart insights. Following a bit of worry about the Gawkerization of journalism, Mr. Fallows looks at the bright side, in the form of the quite excellent coverage of Arab unrest:
Yet with all these reasons why the media should have failed, in fact they succeeded. A major event in world history was covered more quickly, with more nuance, involving a greater range of voices and critical perspectives, than would have been conceivable even a few years ago. Within hours of the first protests in Egypt, American and world audiences read dispatches from professional correspondents -- on Web sites, rather than waiting until the next day, as they had to during the fall of the Berlin Wall. They saw TV news footage -- including Al Jazeera's, which was carried by few U.S. broadcasters but was available on computers or mobile apps. Then the Twitter feeds from and about Egypt, the amateur YouTube videos from the streets, the commentary of contending analysts -- all of it available as the story took place. We take this for granted, yet there has been nothing like it before. Even a year ago it would have been hard to imagine how thoroughly, and with what combination of media, voices, and judgments, an event in an Arab capital could have been witnessed around the world.
I'm a little late to John Battelle's take on what's wrong with the tech press, but his post does a wonderful job of diagnosing and explaining a problem that, I think, a lot of us oxpeckers have been struggling with lately. While Mr. Battelle doesn't believe there's a VC bubble, he does see an "Internet Interest Bubble," which he's defined elsewhere as the existence of "far more interest in the story of the Internet and its various inhabitants than there is real news to satisfy that interest." Here's an expanded explanation:
First off, what is "the press"? If you define it as "responsible journalists working diligently at their craft" then I'd submit we no longer have an information ecosystem dominated by "the press." Indeed, we have a ton of great reporters doing their jobs -- probably far more now than we had even at the height of the first boom. But the overall conversation is no longer dominated by their work. Instead, we have migrated to a more free-wheeling discourse driven by any number of interested parties. As it relates to the Internet industry, that means VCs and entrepreneurs promoting or angling for investments or promotion (or souring a deal they didn't get a part of), bankers trying to influence any number of outcomes, and sources within all manners of companies pushing their own agenda on Twitter, Quora, or in private conversations with bloggers and other media outlets.
Posts on Twitter, remarks at conferences and blog posts are instantly rendered "news stories," Mr. Batelle adds, by "the post-cambrian publishing explosion of sites covering the narrative." You know what Mr. Keller would call them.