Blog overkill.

Media criticism.
Jan. 26 2005 8:48 PM

Blog Overkill

The danger of hyping a good thing into the ground.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

A long, long time ago—OK, it was 33 years ago—Michael Shamberg and a clutch of other video visionaries from the Raindance Corporation visited my college campus to preach their gospel of the coming media apocalypse. Waving a copy his book Guerrilla Television, Shamberg prophesied that the Sony Porta-Pak—an ungainly video camera wired to a luggage-size tape deck carried over the shoulder—would herald a media revolution greater than the one fomented by Gutenberg's moveable type.

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Once the People got their hands on the video power and started making decentralized, alternative media, the network news programs would collapse under the weight of their own lies, Shamberg said. The Hollywood industrial entertainment complex was going down, too, man, and would be replaced by street stories recorded by Porta-Pak-toting freaks. The multiplexes out by the freeway would be shuttered and sold to neighborhood theater groups. In Guerrilla Television Shamberg wrote:

With portable videotape technology, anything recorded on location is ready on location, instantly. Thus, people can control information about themselves, rather than surrender that power to outsiders. ABC, CBS, and NBC do not swim like fish among the people. They watch from the beach and thus just see the surface of the water.

Shamberg convinced me that this clunky black-and-white camera would completely redistribute media power, although I didn't join the rebellion, unlike some of my classmates, who purchased communal shares in a new Porta-Pak. So long, CBS, I thought. Nice to have known you, Warner Bros.!

But the video vérité of proletarian life and the drama of the antipoverty demonstration, which the video guerrillas found so riveting, proved no competition for Starsky and Hutch and 60 Minutes. Even though video cameras continued to shrink in size and price throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s and have now proliferated to the point of ubiquity, the guerrilla uprising Shamberg and his comrades plotted never progressed much beyond the unwatched public-access channels at the high end of the dial. Their revolution was televised, but nobody watched.

Memories of the video guerrillas percolated to my forebrain last Friday while I attended the "Blogging, Journalism, and Credibility" conference at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Many of the speakers, such as New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen and tech wizard/Ur blogger Dave Winer, echoed Shamberg's fervor as they testified to the socially transformative power of blogs. A blogswarm of amateurs, they proclaimed, is breaking the professionals' hold on the press. There's a major power shift going on, Rosen stated, tilting toward users and away from the established media.

In language only slightly less fervent than Shamberg's, conference participants declared blogs the destroyers of mainstream media. (See this page and this page for a real-time transcription of the conference.) Others prescribed blogs as the medicine the newspaper industry should take to reclaim its lost readers: Publishers should support reader blogs and encourage their reporters to blog in addition to writing stories. Podcasts would undermine the radio network empires. "Open source" journalism, in which readers and bloggers help set the news agenda for newspapers, was promoted as a tonic for what ails the press. Reporters were encouraged to regain the lost trust of readers by blogging drafts of their stories, their notes, and even their taped interviews so other bloggers could dissect and analyze them for fairness.

Winer discounted any chance that the clueless media would adapt to the blogofuture, saying publishers were as blind as the mainframe computer manufacturers of early 1980s who refused to believe PCs would replace their big iron.

I hadn't witnessed such public expressions of high self-esteem since the last time I attended a journalism awards ceremony.

Despite all the blogger preening, none of the attending representatives of the "dinosaur" media—Jim Kennedy of the Associated Press, Jill Abramson of the New York Times, and Rick Kaplan of MSNBC TV—seemed hostile to or threatened by blogs. Kaplan (rightly) boasted about the proliferation of MSNBC blogs, including Hardblogger and Keith Olbermann's Bloggermann. (See also Dan Abrams' Sidebarand Joe Scarborough's Congressman Joe.) His network ran something like 19,000 video clips by citizens from the tsunami front and invites viewers to contribute to its Citizen Journalist Reportpage.

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