A media critic's job is never done. Forget about punching the clock and relaxing in front of the tube with the family. While the public complains about being bombarded 24/7 with news and information on TV, radio, newspapers, magazines and the Net, readers nevertheless expect media critics to be magicians, plucking out each important byte from the thoughtstream and analyzing it instantly.
The more information that comes in, the more the critics have to filter. The Internet has brought the noise to crescendo levels, with thousands of Weblogs and other publications posting millions of bits of news and commentary around the clock.
Weblogs not only give critics more to review, they also are a new form of competition: Thousands of opinionated observers spend their days examining and writing about every move made by newsmakers and the media that cover them.
Now "everybody is a media critic," says Slate media critic Jack Shafer. "And a food critic. But as Mike Kinsley once said, when you go into a restaurant, you don't want the guy who's sitting there talking about the food to cook. You want the chef."
In some cases, the Web has become the home to online-only columns by print journalists, as with Washington Post critic Howard Kurtz's Media Notes column.
And the Web has helped give birth to a number of new "must read" publications: It took press critic Jay Rosen only a New York minute to take up blogging and get noticed. His PressThink Weblog, started just last August, was an instant hit with media junkies who crave lengthy analysis and juicy debate.
The Internet has without question dramatically changed the lives and work of media critics. We recently asked a number of critics to share their thoughts on the Internet's impact -- and to give us their take on the new new media criticism being written, commented on, regurgitated, recycled and marked up online.
I e-mailed the same questions to all the participants, and they sent back responses. (The lone exception was Eric Alterman, who spoke to me by phone.) Here is an edited version of their responses.
Eric Alterman is the author of the national bestseller, "What Liberal Media?" is the media columnist for The Nation, and writes the "Altercation" Weblog for MSNBC.com. He is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and the World Policy Institute at New School University, and is an adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University.
Cynthia Cotts writes The Village Voice's weekly media column, "Press Clips." Prior to joining the Voice, she was a staff reporter for The National Law Journal. Her freelance work has appeared in Details, Slate, Salon, The New York Observer, and Rolling Stone.
Dan Kennedy is senior writer and media critic for the Boston Phoenix, and the 2001 winner of the National Press Club's Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism. He is also the author of "Little People: Learning to See the World Through My Daughter's Eyes," (2003; Rodale). He writes a Weblog called Media Log on the Phoenix's site.
William Powers is the media critic for National Journal. His weekly column also appears on the Web site of the Atlantic Monthly. Previously, he was a staff writer for the Washington Post, and a senior editor of the New Republic.
Jay Rosen is associate professor and Chairman of the Department of Journalism at New York University. He is the author of "What Are Journalists For?" (Yale University Press, 1999). His current project is the Weblog, PressThink. He is also the publisher and founder of The Revealer, a new Weblog (edited by Jeff Sharlet) on religion and the press in a media-driven age, funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and ready to debut any day now.
Jack Shafer writes about the press for Slate, where he is editor at large. In prior incarnations he edited SF Weekly and Washington City Paper. He is a native of Kalamazoo, Mich.
Antonia Zerbisias is media columnist and critic for The Toronto Star, Canada's largest circulation daily. She is also a special contributor to CBC Newsworld's Inside Media, a weekly half hour TV program devoted to what's made the news and how it's made. A former CBC-TV journalist, she has an honors MBA and a TV in her bathroom.
OJR: What's your earliest memory of using the Internet or e-mail as part of your job covering the media?
Alterman: I was working for Rolling Stone in '95 and '96, and I finally figured out how to get online. And I had just bought Liz Phair's first album, "Exile in Guyville." And I was looking to see what was online, and I found a discussion group about Liz Phair, and I was reading it. It was really, really funny, really dirty and really funny. And it was kind of brilliant, the way the Internet sometimes can be.
And so I told my editor at Rolling Stone, "you should print it." She agreed, and she was going to bring it to Jann Wenner. And she asked me where I found it, and I said I found it on a Spin magazine message thing. I was so naive about the Internet that it hadn't occurred to me to look at where it was coming from, because there was no sense of anything proprietary. So I could have screwed up pretty badly.
It sort of presages the whole issue of publishing stuff without knowing where it really comes from, who owns it and who's responsible for it.
Shafer: In the late '80s when I edited Washington City Paper, I used the CompuServe dial-up service, mostly to access Dialog, which was a budget version of Nexis. At the same time, I also subscribed to MCI Mail, and shared my account with my freelance writers so that they could file electronically (at 300 baud!) from home. (I used to send MCI Mail to my future boss, Mike Kinsley, another MCI Mail subscriber, to point out the deficiencies in his TRB column.) For beaucoup bucks, MCI Mail would even let you download Wall Street Journal stories.
In December 1989, I tapped the Internet for the first time. A freelance writer had an e-mail account that wasn't CompuServe and wasn't MCI, but I had read about this thing called the Internet that would allow you to bridge two different proprietary e-mail services. So I tried it, and made contact.
I didn't actually see a Web browser doing its thing until sometime in 1993 or maybe early 1994 when a friend working for a dot-org invited me to come in and watch her connect to Australia to listen to recorded bird calls. She even showed me the big fat pipe that ran from Connecticut Avenue in D.C. to NASA where it flowed directly into the Internet. In May 1996, I escaped print for the Web when I joined Slate just before its launch.
Cotts: I started writing Press Clips [for the Village Voice] in December 1998, so the Internet has been a part of my job from day one. This is the first memory that springs to mind: I found it disturbing when I began opening up e-mail to find unverifiable tips from anonymous sources. My feeling was that some people might send untrue tips in hopes of placing rumors about their enemies, while others might send untrue tips in hopes I would publish them and look bad myself. I respect the anonymity of sources whose identities I know and can confirm, but I don't publish information from sources whose identities I don't know.
Rosen: I remember logging on for the first time and finding that several people had already "found" me, before I existed on the Net, and sent me mail. Struck me as miraculous. I also recall getting a call from an editor at Salon (his name was Andrew Ross, a Brit) a few months after it started. (1995, yes?) He asked me to write an article. I said: "what's Salon?" He said it's a Web magazine. I said what's that? He told me how to find it. I stashed the scribbled note away and took a look about a week later. Wow. It was probably the first Web site I ever examined closely. Things clicked and I called him back, eager to write for Salon, but the assignment was gone.
Then I started looking at the site and I noticed this thing called Table Talk (still there), which was the online forum. Since this was early and the pioneers at Salon were excited about what they were doing, amazed at how well it was working, and eager to explore the new medium, they would sometimes hang out in Table Talk and write about the magazine, participate in debates. Well, I thought this was cool. As a media critic, it seemed pretty radical too. So there began a few years when I too hung out at Table Talk (1995-96), learning what an online discussion forum was about, getting flamed, digging into Internet culture. (I also did a piece or two for Salon, the magazine.)
I met David Talbot and Scott Rosenthal and Mary Elizabeth Williams that way -- at table, as it were. It was fun. I didn't know it at the time, but what I really wanted and needed was a Weblog. They didn't exist. Table Talk did. My interest in the public sphere and public dialogue drew me there, and later to Howard Rheingold's E-minds (1996-97?), which is where I learned about online community. This was all part of being a press critic because it taught me how much "distributed intelligence" there is out there, just among people in the public who read the press and think about its problems.
Powers: I remember using the Web for the first time when I was at the Washington Post doing a column about magazines. This would be in the early '90s, when there wasn't much news content online yet. A Post researcher sat me down and showed me how to use a Netscape browser. I was trying to check an allusion I wanted to work into the column, to a moment in some famous novel. It was like "Lord Jim" or "Moby Dick," one of the biggies. We went to one of those early sites where somebody had put up the texts of great books in a searchable format and in seconds we were at the passage I needed. I was blown away.
Kennedy: I've been a media critic since 1994, but for a year or two before that I wrote an occasional column for the Phoenix called "CyberWatch," which was devoted to exploring the Internet and other aspects of the burgeoning online world. (Now it's all the Internet; then it wasn't.)
I also remember researching a story on artificial bovine growth hormone for the now-defunct Garbage magazine using a shell account with a local service called The World -- still around, by the way, at www.theworld.com. I managed to find several important documents on the Web using lynx. Mosaic hadn't even been developed at this point.
Zerbisias: To tell you the truth, I really can't recall. It's as if there was never a time when the Internet and e-mail did not exist. I don't know how I managed before. But I distinctly can remember having much more of a life before I ploughed through some 50 favorite Web sites/blogs a day, not to mention hundreds of e-mails.
OJR: How has Web surfing and e-mailing contacts changed the nature of your job?
Alterman: Most of my job takes place on the Internet. I'm not like Rob Glaser or Bill Gates; I didn't make a fortune on the Internet. But I earn most of my living reading the Internet and writing on the Internet. So I'm really grateful for the Internet. I don't know how I'd earn my living without it. I'm not the world's greatest reporter but I'm a very diligent researcher and I'd say 80 percent of my research takes place on the Internet.
My research takes place on the Internet, I don't really like to phone anyone. Most of my communication takes place through e-mail. My books are promoted and sold, and marketed virally on the Internet.
Rosen: I would say: totally. The information universe I can dig into myself, at my desk, has shifted. The Web is now the baseline -- for me. I start and end my day there. I am in correspondence now with many more people with an interest in my work and the subjects I write about, as well as peers (critics) and academic colleagues. I do interviews by e-mail, and they work. Which is not to say that they are equivalent to or a substitute for traditional interviewing by phone or person. Different animal. An e-mail interview is a shared text, it's co-authorship, crafted conversation, two people thinking in type. It's a form suited to what I do, and the questions I like to ask.
Shafer: It has increased the velocity of my work, of course, and made me less reliant on the telephone and the newsstand for information. It's made collecting and saving information so much easier. It's a clich?, but surfing the Web makes you feel like you've merged with a mega-brain. The only problem I have with the merger is I can't always understand what the mega-brain is trying to tell me. I understand my corporate fathers at Microsoft are working on neural connections a la "The Matrix" to solve that problem.
Powers: They've made the job more fun than it already was, and that's saying something. Having your column go up online and then getting instant feedback by e-mail, from all over the place, it's just thrilling. It's like you got up on a chair at a party and gave a little speech, then everyone rushed over and told you what they thought of it. But the party's the whole world.
I know the Web is old hat now and we're all supposed to be jaded about it, but for me it's still astonishing. It's like this dream world that I get to visit every day, wander around and discover new treasures. Last year I wrote about the amazing on-the-fly video pieces that Washingtonpost.com and others now do. That's a whole new genre that fascinates me. Lately I've been exploring radio stations that stream on the Web. The other day I was listening to a wild jazz station out of Tokyo, live in my home office, clear as can be -- it's miraculous! The Web has made tracking the media more of an adventure.
Cotts: The Web is a great research tool when you're trying to find someone or get a rough handle on a subject. And e-mail is a great medium for rapidly conveying printed material, like Nexis downloads, or complicated requests for comment. The Web makes everything faster.
Kennedy: When I started doing this nine years ago, the only way you could get the Washington Post was to send an intern to Harvard Square and hope he or she managed to come back with a day-old copy. Now there is no excuse not to know exactly what the Post might have on something, right up to the minute.
In these respects, the Internet has been a double-edged sword: It makes certain mechanical aspects of my job much easier, but it also raises the reader's expectations for what I'm going to be able to bring to the table. The most significant change is that the Internet has given me a small but influential national audience, especially thanks to Jim Romenesko's media site on Poynter.org.
OJR: Do you find yourself keeping tabs on competing critics online more often or not? Why?
Cotts: The most important development since I started my job in December 1998 was the rise of Jim Romenesko's "Mediagossip," as it used to be known. His site eliminates all the logistics that might be involved in getting access to the media critics, so of course I keep tabs on the competitors online. Not to do so would be professional malfeasance!
Shafer: I go to Romenesko four or five times a day and read the sexiest things Jim has put up. I don't make a point of reading other critics just for the sake of reading them.
Powers: Media critics all do the job so differently that I honestly don't think of us as competitors. Some operate more as reporters, some as pundits, some as ideo-warriors, some as gossips, some as pure ranters. It's like we're a bunch of musicians reading the same sheet of music, the media, but interpreting it with different instruments and in radically different styles. And we all come together in a kind of wacky symphony on Romenesko. I go there a few times a day and scan the heds, and I'll generally click on a few items. You get to know who's worth the click, who gives good value.
Rosen: I keep tabs on fellow critics, of course. They give me ideas. I love it when they hit the mark. I love being able to "read" the mainstream press mind in what different journalists say in their self-reflective moments, or when addressing a controversy; and this is far easier to do with the Web. Especially Romenesko! But I never think of other critics and writers on the press as being competitors. Maybe because I am not in the game of breaking news, and don't care about being "first" with anything. Maybe because I have a job with tenure. As far as I can tell, other critics are potential readers of my work, as I am of theirs. The philosopher Michael Walzer calls this a "company of critics." I think of myself as a writer in such a company. I always did, but PressThink, my Weblog, makes this literal, tangible, incredibly real.
Zerbisias: I used to but therein lies madness. Not only is it time-consuming but it also makes you hate yourself for not being as prolific and trenchant as Danny Schechter (www.mediachannel.org) or as clever as Eric Alterman or...I could go on but you get the point.
Another problem is that most of the best media critics are Americans and, as a Canadian, I have to diverge from the U.S. path to cover matters of domestic interest and relevance. Which means my job is tougher. That's because critiquing the U.S. media is like shooting fish in a barrel. Whenever I need a day off, I set my sights south of the 49th parallel and knock off a column quickly.
The downside is then that I am inundated with e-mail from the U.S., both positive and negative. The positive is heart-warming and yet depressing because it points to how pathetic much of the U.S. media are. The negative is downright scary. I am glad that I work in Canada where people are less likely to express their displeasure with a gun.
Alterman: The great thing about the Internet is that I can read Israeli newspapers, French newspapers, British newspapers in real time. To me, it's about information more than other writers. There are some writers who are not available except on the Internet. I wouldn't subscribe to the Washington Post to read my friend Richard Cohen, or Michael Kinsley or E.J. [Dionne Jr.], but now I read pretty much everything they write. It's almost as if I have to physically see every single studio production of a television show instead of having a TV. For me, I've become attached to the hip of my computer.
Because I'm a media writer, I get most things for free. If I weren't in that position, it would make all the difference in the world. It still makes quite a bit of difference because of the time lag. When things go up on the Internet, they go up right away. The Internet is also very valuable for publications that don't have a lot of money. The New Republic appears to be in bad shape, because they didn't renew my print comp subscription but they did give me a password to read the whole thing on the Internet. If it weren't for the Internet, I would never see the New Republic.
Kennedy: Absolutely. I want to know what Howard Kurtz, Cynthia Cotts, Sridhar Pappu, Michael Wolff, and everyone else is writing because I might want to quote what they've written for something I'm doing or, alternatively, because I might decide not to write about a topic if I conclude that others have already covered the same territory as well as I could.
OJR: With the rise of Weblogs, do you sometimes get the feeling that everyone is a media critic? How do you see bloggers changing (or not) the media landscape?
Kennedy: Weblogs have created quite a cottage industry in media criticism, haven't they? I do think that the blogging phenomenon has been much overhyped. A few have become quite influential, but only because the people producing them add a lot of value: Josh Marshall is a fine traditional journalist who does a lot of original reporting; Andrew Sullivan is a gifted polemicist; Glenn Reynolds updates obsessively.
That said, I do think that blogging has produced one really good media critic who probably couldn't do what he's doing in any other medium: Bob Somerby. His meticulously researched rants are a perfect example of Web journalism at its best.
But bloggers have not been nearly as influential as their most enthusiastic boosters would claim. I say that as someone who writes a blog -- Media Log, at BostonPhoenix.com. For me, it's a way to offer a lot of one-off observations that are too ephemeral for print, and to do it for a small audience. Let's not get carried away with thinking that blogging is much more than that.
Alterman: I think the jury is still out on what effect blogging will have on journalism. The original bloggers who made a difference journalistically were journalists. Blogging is tremendously useful in that regard because there's an awful lot you can't get into your article that's worth knowing for people who are interested in that topic. And you can have interactive conversations with someone.
There are a few exceptions, there are a few people who are amateur bloggers who are so good at it that journalists have to keep up with what they do. There are a tiny number of them, and I don't know how they do it financially, I don't know what the model is. I see Neil Pollack, whose blog I really enjoy, decided to give it up, because it was unsustainable with the amount of time he was putting in. I don't know how people who do it for fun do it. My blog is a part of my professional job, but I could never justify the time I devote to it if I weren't getting paid. Maybe for people who don't have families.
So the question is, is the model with the voluntary blogger who actually creates great journalistic value on his blog sustainable? I think it's too early to tell.
Cotts: Generally, I think it's a great thing that the Internet provides a worldwide public forum for anyone who wants to take a stance and be heard. It's a major breakthrough in the annals of free speech. On the other hand, I think the Internet has devalued the importance of opinion writing on any subject, by making it so widely available.
Shafer: Yes, everybody is a media critic. And a food critic. But as Mike Kinsley once said, when you go into a restaurant, you don't want the guy who's sitting there talking about the food to cook. You want the chef.
That said, bloggers are out there prospecting the territories and discovering and documenting important things about the press and the way that it works. Like the sports pages or the alternative weeklies before them, blogs are a great proving ground for new talent. I scan Blogdex twice a day to find the top stories the bloggers are linking to and to find out what the bloggers are saying.
Powers: It's true, everyone's a media critic now, but I'm glad about that. There's so much media out there to critique, there's room for everyone. As for blogging, I don't feel I know yet what's going to happen there. It's awe-inspiring, the time these people are able to devote to their blogs, and the intensity they bring to it. I think of them as the modern equivalent of medieval monks locked in their cells studying sacred texts. Except these folks are studying the news and fighting these intricate, elaborate battles about what it all means.
Inevitably, there will be some huge breakout blogs, people who take the art of blogging to a new level and draw in a lot more people than any bloggers are getting now. I don't think we know yet who these grand masters of blog will be. They might be 7 years old.
Zerbisias: Yes, I do feel that everyone is a media critic. We all scream at our TVs, don't we? As for bloggers, many of them humble me. I count my lucky stars that I was able to land a good-paying gig doing this, with health benefits yet, while other, much more talented people do it for nothing. But I don't think that bloggers, in general, are changing the media landscape. Sure, there have been instances but they have been rare, notable for their exceptionality. The truth is, bloggers are not that well read in the great scheme of things.
OJR: Which media Web sites do you visit regularly and why?
Kennedy: Oh, I'm boring. Slate, Salon, Drudge, WSJ.com, washingtonpost.com, Romenesko, The Note, Danny Schechter, Joe Conason, Best of the Web, KausFiles, the Daily Howler, Andrew Sullivan, SpinSanity, Josh Marshall, TNR Online (because sometimes I don't want to wait for the mailman). I could go on, but all in all nothing too surprising here.
Another fine online media critic is my former Phoenix colleague Al Giordano, who recently shut down his NarcoNews.com Web site and is now writing a blog called Big, Left, Outside. I check in semi-regularly.
Powers: Google News and Yahoo News for breaking stuff. Washingtonpost.com for headlines and local news. My company's site, Nationaljournal.com, for political news. Capecodtimes.com for news about my favorite corner of the world. Romenesko for media. Drudge for juicy stuff and laughs. Aldaily.com for big thoughts. TheOnion.com for more laughs. Those are the ones I check most often.
Rosen: Romenesko because it's the baseline for the day's media developments and press controversies, "news" in the most basic sense for me, as writer. The New York Times because it's The New York Times and part of my life for 20+ years. Salon and Slate because they keep me in touch with what a strata of journalists and critics are saying and arguing about. The Note because I can keep up with politics.
I read other columns at Poynter, too: E-media Tidbits, Roy Peter Clark, Bob Steele, Journalism Junction. I check in with FreeRepublic and Slashdot because they are generational windows; I '"read" what young people are up to there. MediaBistro for the interviews. New York Observer for all its media coverage. OJR, of course. Any long take-out by Glaser I want to read. Then there are all the Weblogs I read regularly, most of which are listed at PressThink.
Shafer: Talking Points Memo, KausFiles, The Volokh Conspiracy, AndrewSullivan.com, David Corn's Capital, Drudge, TAP, Taranto's Best of the Web, InstaPundit, TNR.com's &c., and Mark Kleiman to keep abreast of the day's political ideas. As noted above, Romenesko to keep abreast of journalism news and opinion.
Zerbisias: I have more than 50 bookmarked, from Alternet to FAIR to Cursor.org to mediachannel.org to Poynter to IWantMedia to Media Guardian. Too many to mention.
OJR: What's the most annoying thing about the Internet in your day-to-day job?
Cotts: Eye strain, hands down.
Kennedy: Incoming e-mail, especially since most of it is spam. I recently wrote a book, and the only way I was able to do it was to bring my laptop to the public library -- and away from the Internet. I love the new WiFi networks that libraries are starting to install, yet I wonder if they might detract from our last refuge.
Alterman: The most annoying thing about it is that my family hates it profoundly because I clearly can't get anything done when I get home until I go downstairs to my office and check what's there. I'm the kind of person where I need to clear my plate. My desk is always clear. I do my assignments when I get them instead of when they're due. I'm very anal in that way. If there's an e-mail downstairs waiting for me, or if there's a possibility there's some development in the world that I don't know about, I need to make sure I'm on top of it before I can play checkers with my daughter. That's very annoying.
Rosen: Spam for sure, but wouldn't everyone say that? The other thing is the way the Internet always tells you it has more for you to read, do, write and know than you will ever be able to read, do, write, and know. It's not the embarrassment of riches so much as the rebuke, the way the library shelves rebuke the graduate student and taunt her with their unread miles. The Internet makes you want to know everything you don't. This can get annoying because it has done nothing to expand human time. It stays stubbornly the same. So you feel like you know less than you ever did, even though you know more.
Zerbisias: While I always reply to all reader e-mails, even the hate e-mails, sometimes I get annoyed by those people who believe I have nothing else to do all day but engage in debates with them and them alone. That's one. Two is that, like piles of unread newspapers in my kitchen, the Internet is starting to be a vast source of guilt that I am not doing my job. Nothing like a virtual pile of bookmarks.