Media Writers and Writing

Journalism Versus the Quest for Ammunition


In this month’s issue of Atlantic, Mark Bowden,
(the author of Black Hawk Down among other worthy pieces of work) has written an examination of what is going on contemporary journalism. As is usual with such articles, there is much bemoaning of the terrible, awful, no-good, very bad influence of (gasp) bloggers and the news media destroying horrors of the democratizing web.

Bowden, however, is a smart man and an excellent, often inspired journalist. So, in his case, his overall thesis went deeper. The result is both dead wrong and utterly right.

For instance, the subhead for the article is the following:

With journalists being laid off in droves, ideologues have stepped forward to provide the “reporting” that feeds the 24-hour news cycle. The collapse of journalism means that the quest for information has been superseded by the quest for ammunition.

Well, no. And yes. “The quest for ammunition’ is a great phrase—and exactly what much of TV journalism, in particular, has become. But this “quest for ammunition” ethic was ramping up well before the news business began bottoming out. In fact, it is one of the elements that is part of the cause of it.

Bowden wants to blame this zero-sum news trend on blogging and the web. But he’s aiming at the wrong target. There are more and more bloggers working on either a local and/or a national level—plus many of those who run niche news sites—who are digging after truth, not deadlier bullets. To choose a very few examples, Scott Henson’s Grits for Breakfast, Doug Berman’s Sentencing Law and Policy, Andy Rotherham’s Eduwonk, Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, come randomly to mind. And there are many in the mainstream media who have replaced a search for truth with an idiotic notion of “balance”—or worse, with a cynical quest for readers and viewers, whatever that takes, no matter what the sacrifice in terms of integrity.

The most recent and repellent demonstration being Time Magazine’s cover story on Glenn Beck. (No, it’s not the fact that Time put Glenn Beck on the cover. As others have noted earlier than I have, he was a rather appropriate choice, actually. It’s the cloying dishonesty with which that story is written. One need only read the first paragraph.)

If, on the other hand, one reads these paragraphs snipped from the end of Bowden’s essay and, simply deletes the word “blogger” and substitutes some phrase like…say…zero sum commentator then Bowden is smack on.

I would describe their approach as post-journalistic. It sees democracy, by definition, as perpetual political battle. The blogger’s role is to help his side. Distortions and inaccuracies, lapses of judgment, the absence of context, all of these things matter only a little, because they are committed by both sides, and tend to come out a wash. Nobody is actually right about anything, no matter how certain they pretend to be. The truth is something that emerges from the cauldron of debate. No, not the truth: victory, because winning is way more important than being right. Power is the highest achievement. There is nothing new about this. But we never used to mistake it for journalism. Today it is rapidly replacing journalism, leading us toward a world where all information is spun, and where all “news” is unapologetically propaganda.


There’s more here than just an old journalist’s lament over his dying profession, or over the social cost of losing great newspapers and great TV-news operations. And there’s more than an argument for the ethical superiority of honest, disinterested reporting over advocacy. Even an eager and ambitious political blogger like Richmond, because he is drawn to the work primarily out of political conviction, not curiosity, is less likely to experience the pleasure of finding something new, or of arriving at a completely original, unexpected insight, one that surprises even himself. He is missing out on the great fun of speaking wholly for himself, without fear or favor. This is what gives reporters the power to stir up trouble wherever they go. They can shake preconceptions and poke holes in presumption. They can celebrate the unnoticed and puncture the hyped. They can, as the old saying goes, afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. A reporter who thinks and speaks for himself, whose preeminent goal is providing deeper understanding, aspires even in political argument to persuade, which requires at the very least being seen as fair-minded and trustworthy by those—and this is the key—who are inclined to disagree with him. The honest, disinterested voice of a true journalist carries an authority that no self-branded liberal or conservative can have. “For a country to have a great writer is like having another government,” Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote. Journalism, done right, is enormously powerful precisely because it does not seek power. It seeks truth. Those who forsake it to shill for a product or a candidate or a party or an ideology diminish their own power. They are missing the most joyful part of the job.

Yep. But about that last. Because I teach, I get to see first hand that there are plenty of young journalists who do get it—who want that “most joyful part of the job.”

So, yeah, it’s the worst of times. But also the best of times. Journalism is crashing and burning. Journalism is being remade.

Anyway, read Bowden’s piece. Let me know what you think.


  • Ah, yes. The blogger. The 21st Century whipping boy.

    It seems to me that, his protestations notwithstanding, he’s seeing the future but just doesn’t like it. But I would expect that. It’s an old guard attitude.

    Compare his laments with the recent Salon interview with Vincent Rossmeier, author of “A Better Pencil”, (, where he makes the point that any new technology is going to have its detractors, its supporters and the rest of us will sit out on the sidelines and wait for the bickering to clear.

    Plato was all jacked up over writing, Ludd hated the automatic loom. People are afraid to change.

    But things are changing. They’ve been changing. They will always change.

    I think this is an exciting time for journalism, publishing, television. Communication in general.

    Right now, nobody’s wrong. Rather nobody’s any more wrong than anybody else. Are blogs the way to go? Are cheap camcorders and YouTube the way to go? Are eBooks the way to go?

    There are so many models and so many possibilities right now that almost any direction we take is just as likely to lead to success as any other.

    There’s no certainty. Who knows what’s going to happen? It creates chaos and upheaval.

    And I think that’s what scares some people, and excites the rest of us.

  • Great, insightful dissection.

    That pandering Time cover piece is a disgrace, solely on the grounds of specific content that is some combination of demonstrably false and obvious cowardice, and guys like Bowden should be at least as up in arms about that utterly disingenuous approach.

  • I’m wondering how many of the journalists who are kicking and screaming these days – say a Joe Klein – wrote those “thoughtful, mature” pieces on globalization that suggested American industrial workers had to just get it through their heads that the world had changed and there was no stopping Progress.

    There are some serious issues in the current environment, but as a consumer of information, I’ve never had it better. Also, as someone who is generally “on the left” I really like not being dependent on a few predictable weekly sources like The Nation for my “critical” content. My politics have probably shifted subtley to the “right” in recent years due to the blogosphere – because the young, liberal bloggers have created a much more dynamic, less ideologically pre-fabricated space for an exchange of critical commentary with fewer legacy or “hangover” agendas.

  • I’m not reading the “whole piece” and your entire post. Too many words. However, I got the gist of it.

    What’s wrong with journalists in the Liberal MSM? I thought that they liked change.

    A major problem with the media, as I see it, is that they weren’t dessiminating all the news – just the liberals news and viewpoints that they wanted to be heard…and they still are doing it.

    Honestly, if it weren’t for other sources of information from the internet, like Drudge Report, we wouldn’t ever hear of a lot issues. We’d still believe that Dan Rather’s Bush memos were real, that ACORN operated legally, that Van Jones was just like your neighbor next door, that the socialized medicine bill that HAD to be passed immediately was not flawed in any way and would pay for itself, that Obama’s Treasury Department appointees actually paid their taxes, that Monica’s dress was never stained and that Bill Clinton told the truth to a federal judge, that Joe the Plumber was wrong, that global warming is real rather than a wealth-redistribution plan, that Obama abandoned missile defense of Poland on the 40th anniversary of Russia invading Poland because he had a better idea, that the stories left out of the NYT or put on page B-13 aren’t important, that the Democrats honestly won certain elections in Washington and Minnesota, that terrorist bombers could be anything, like Presbyterians, rather than Muslims, and that something must be wrong with anyone who doesn’t agree with elitist liberals.

    If journalists have a complaint, they should look at themselves for abandoning their role as trusted informers. Blogs stepped in to fill a void and correct the records.

    Here’s a more down-to-earth take on the subject than I’m willing to provide on my own.

    Will blogs replace the MSM? by Jane Galt, July 25, 2006

    …Bloggers and journalists have different strengths; when done right, they complement each other. Good bloggers have extensive local knowlege and excellent feedback mechanisms; by definition, some of my readers know more about any topic I write on (or blog on) than I do. Journalists have breadth, time, and reach.

    …In short, blogs are a pretty good substitute for an op-ed page. They are rarely good substitutes for news reporting.

    …That’s why I was so surprised by the New York Times’ TimesSelect strategy. It seemed unbelievably ass-backwards to me. The Times has always had a distinctly mediocre editorial page…. Its news gathering organisation, on the other hand, is probably the biggest and best in the world…. So it decided to give its content away for free in the one area where it has a serious competitive advantage over its rivals, and put a pay barrier in front of its opinion journalism.

    …In a way, I think blogging has the same trouble that I think open source will continue to have: without the profit motive, there is no incentive to invest in the dull-but-necessary, or cater to outsiders.

    …Update Ezra Klein has more:

    I’d add that the warlike relationship so often assumed between blogs and the media strikes me as a backwards interpretation — the two genuinely need each other, and act more as countervailing powers than anything. Before blogs, the problem with the media-as-watchdog was that it lacked a watchdog — a few self-interested organizations arose to work the refs, wielding outsized influence because so few replicated their strategies, but there weren’t a broad range of informed observers attentively watching the press and lambasting its failures. Now, of course, there are.

  • Not reading Woody’s “too many words” except I saw the name “Ezra Klein” pop up in his super long paste-up. I guess they’re passing out SnowCones in Hell today…

  • This is a funny thread, Reg describing himself as someone who is “generally on the left” is about as accurate as Hitler having said ” I’m generally not a big supporter of the Jewish people”. Pretty funny that guy Reg.

    If the Time cover piece on Glen Beck was pandering than what was it called when out of 52 Time issues in 2008 Obama’s photo was on it’s own 14 times and in the skybox area of the front page 11 times? In contrast McCain was on the cover 5 times, sharing the cover with Obama 3 of those times.

    The leftist media pandered to Obama to help elect him and the whole nation knows it. Newsweek wasn’t much different than Time. The media as a whole has betrayed the populace with their obvious bias and people are waking up to that fact as evidenced by the popularity of blogs and Fox.

  • Oh. Ouch !

    The usual twaddle…

    Incidentally, this nitwit can’t be trusted. He’s lying about the Time covers. Obama’s photo wasn’t on the cover “own its own” anything close to 14 times. Obama’s face was on the cover on it’s own three times before the election – four times if you count the back of his head. He was on full cover twice in 2008 after he’d won the election. He was also on once in a childhood photo with his mother, three times in split shots with Hillary during the Dem primaries, and four times with McCain. McCain was on twice alone. That’s quite different from Misfire’s calculations. Obama was on a max of five times “on its own” prior to the election, counting the back of his head and a childhood picture with mom, to Misfire’s “14.” After the election doesn’t count in the context of the tendentious bullshit he’s peddling, for the obvious reasons.

    Misfire’s a donk IMHO.

  • OT, but I just wanted to opine on this incident involving cops playing with a suspect’s game system for 9 hours after raiding his house in Florida. I know the PC thing to do now is call for those cops’ heads. Have any of you ever been cops? Do you know what it’s like? If you did, you’d know that a good 9 hours of video golf is necessary to ease the stress that goes with this job. You guys complain no matter what we do. We steal some of the dope? You complain. We offer the suspect’s girlfriend immunity if she has sex with us? Out of line. We play with their gaming system? Inappropriate. Maybe we ought to just stay home and let you guys defend yourselves from the scumbags. Believe me, after one week you’ll be begging us to come back, raid your house, play with your wii system, have a go with your old lady, and steal your kush. You’re welcome.

  • The Order of the Blue Brotherhood, a quasi-moral conclave of armed thugs whose function is, ostensibly, to protect us from other armed thugs.

    Usually they just roust the underclass, being generally too stupid & corrupt to ever sniff out any real crime.
    They have a room in America’s virtual wing.
    You may have seen it.
    It’s called


  • Mavis, you are an idiot who runs when confronted and are here only to post inane comments like your brother Reg. I know what the article said, get a grip.

    Here’s the article that was my source Reg, you idiot. Argue with them Einstein. More bs from the king of it, Snitch Reg.
    What me to explain what the word “featured” means liar? You’re dumb as a rock, all yap no substance.

    Obama appeared on half of Time covers Posted: Wednesday, December 17, 2008 12:24 PM by Domenico Montanaro
    Filed Under: Sarah Palin

    From NBC’s Domenico Montanaro
    In light of Barack Obama (predictably) being named Time’s Person of the Year, First Read took a look back to see which magazine — Time or Newsweek — won the battle of who put Obama on the cover the most in 2008.

    Drumroll. The winner is… Time.

    Time has featured Obama on its cover 14 times since Jan. 1. Newsweek was close behind, featuring the now-president-elect on 12 of its issues. Time has had 52 issues in 2008, so Obama has been featured on more than one-in-four of its covers, or about 27% of the time.

    That number, though, goes even higher if you include how many times Obama has appeared in the “skybox” — 11 times.

    That means Obama’s face or name has somehow made it onto the cover of Time just about half of the time this year (25 out of 52 issues — 48%)

    Newsweek has had 49 issues this year so far (through Dec. 22), so Obama has been featured on about a quarter of its covers as well.

    In contrast, the Republican nominee, John McCain, made the cover of Newsweek just four times the entire year, and twice he shared it — once with Obama and once with Sarah Palin.

    In fact, Palin made the cover by herself as many times as McCain did — the entire year. She did it twice (Sept. 15 and Oct. 13). She also shared it with McCain once (Sept. 8). McCain was on the cover solo way back in February during the primary (Feb. 11 and 18).

    So, during the general election the Republican vice-presidential candidate was on the cover of Newsweek more often than the guy at the top of the ticket.

    McCain appeared on the cover of Time five times in 2008, three of which were shared with Obama. The Republican standard bearer had the cover of Time to himself just twice the entire year. His running mate was on its cover just once — da solo on Sept. 15th.

    And say it ain’t so, Joe. Vice-president-elect Joe Biden gets no love. He wasn’t featured on Time’s cover at all in 2008, and made Newsweek’s just once.

    On that one, he was standing with, you guessed it, Obama.

  • Hey moron, I don’t give a shit what you’re posting now in an attempt to cover your sorry ass because I read your original claim and went and went and looked at the actual covers for 2008, checked how many times Obama’s photo was “on it’s own”, when in appeared in relation to the election, and when he appeared with others. The actual count, incidentally, is 15 covers with Obama’s photo in some form. My descriptions were precise.

    You wrote a deceptive claim “Obama’s photo was on its own 14 times” and I checked it and proved you were talking out of your ass. The reason I checked out your statement by looking at the actual evidence and making my own count was because it sounded ridiculous. Not exactly Einstein. Just going to the Time site and doing simple math. But what does that make you, responding with lame insults ?

    Man up, you little shit. You’re playing like a donk.

  • I particularly like this from Misfire’s genius response:

    “What me to explain what the word “featured” means liar? You’re dumb as a rock, all yap no substance”

    I understand what “featured” means, but you might want to explain what “on it’s own” means, since your statement was: “out of 52 Time issues in 2008 Obama’s photo was on it’s own 14 times.”

    Anyone with balls would realize they’d fucked up and simply acknowldege error. Not our boy! He ramps up the insults and ignores the evidence. I’m wondering how this feature of Misfire’s little psyche plays out in his professional life.

  • Surefire’s suggestion that I am afraid of him is dumb because…

    A. this is the internet and all he can do is post tedious ad hominem rants

    B. he is more Paul Blart than Dirty Harry

    C. Acorn has stationed agents outside my home to protect me.

    Take your pick. I vote all of the above.

  • 1) I never have to cover my sorry ass Reg.
    2) Unlike an idiot like you I admit my mistakes, read through the article too quick and the wording “on it’s own” was wrong.
    3) That explains “on it’s own” right Reg, but the way they portrayed him in most of the photos I saw were nothing more than unpaid ads for his election.
    4) I never differentiated between before and after the election, but the two just prior to the elction was proof of my comment #3.
    5) Not afraid of me personally Mavis, you’re slow huh? Running from conflict isn’t something I’ve ever done either in person or on the net as I think I’m showing with this post. You’re a bit of a dullard and a whack. I knew a guy who would instigate fights and than step back when the real work started, you could never depend on him. Nobody would ever confuse me for that type of guy.
    6) Never on tilt Reg.
    7) By the way, what is your professional life, or is this it?

  • Honestly, surefire, this is ridiculous. The only reason I posted that silly thing about not being afraid of you is because you called me an “idiot who runs when confronted.” I never called you some one who runs from conflict. In fact, I think you’re quite the opposite. You can’t seem to avoid picking fights and calling people names. In the future I may call you out when you say something I think is wrong, but I’m not interested in these sorts of pissing matches. Later.

  • “3) …the way they portrayed him in most of the photos I saw were nothing more than unpaid ads for his election.
    4) I never differentiated between before and after the election, but the two just prior to the elction was proof of my comment #3”

    The two covers that Obama appeared on “just prior to the election” were one that also featured a very nice portrait of John McCain and one with a quadrant of pix including John McCain, Roosevelt and Lincoln.

    It’s never a good idea to amp up the insults and assertions when you’re already on shaky ground.

Leave a Comment