CHICAGO -- For many here at YearlyKos, especially the political reporters, the biggest event of the conference on Friday was a panel discussion that featured Salon's Glenn Greenwald, the Politico's Mike Allen, Time's Jay Carney and Feministe's Jill Filipovic. It was billed as a confrontation between the crusty old mainstream media and the tough and truth-telling blogoshere. Lots of spittle, raised voices and loose fists could be expected.
None of that happened. Allen and Carney went out of their way to praise Greenwald. Greenwald forcefully repeated his longtime criticisms of Washington journalism for being too dependent on official sources, sometimes just plain wrong and often not adversarial enough. Filipovic made solid points about the power and usefulness of the blogs in improving the national dialogue. At a few points, the crowd tried to get a fight started, by jeering Allen for dodging a query or asking Allen and Carney questions that amounted to "Why do you reporters suck so bad?"
That question is certainly not new or surprising, and I can say with authority that a lot of political reporters these days are thinking about it pretty closely. As a Salon writer, I long ago got used to reader comments that call me out for many of the decisions I make. Why did I describe a balding FCC commissioner as balding? Where do I get off describing Barack Obama's campaign stump speech as feminine? Why did I leave out this exchange or mock that candidate in my debate roundups? Did the headlines on today's blog posts about Hillary Clinton misrepresent the story? Doesn't this story or that story prove I am a secret supporter of Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton or Mitt Romney or John McCain?
Most of the time, the challenges are good ones. Like other reporters, I don't always agree with the criticisms, but I take them seriously. I try to avoid repeating my mistakes and I try to get better with each story. But the attacks on me and other writers signal something much bigger than just my work, something that caused the Greenwald/Allen panel to get so much attention. Simply put, news is no longer a one-way process. It is now much more of a conversation between journalist and reader. Reporters at major news organizations no longer have the omnipotent authority they once had. The news process, in a word, has been democratized. Readers feel entitled to get just the information they want, in the form they want it. They feel entitled to talk back. Slowly but surely, we reporters are beginning to accept that readers do actually have this right, and that the feedback can make us better, not worse. As the old New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling once put it, "I think democracy a most precious thing, not because any democratic state is perfect, but because it is perfectible."
So the trend is clear. In private conversations with colleagues, which often sound like therapy sessions, I have joked about the possibility of jumping ahead of the curve. I could start a blog, www.whymichaelscherersucksthisweek.com, where I could comment on each one of my own stories, measuring the extent to which it a) advances my own social calendar in Washington, b) inadvertently or intentionally advances any partisan or interest group narrative, c) is lazy, d) shames my profession, e) is wrong or f) proves that I am captive to either my editors or my advertisers. I could try to get myself hired as a Salon ombudsman to analyze the attacks blogger Michael Scherer is making on reporter Michael Scherer, distinguishing serious critiques from the empty partisan/ad hominem jibes. On a monthly basis, I could hold a panel discussion at the National Press Club between blogger Michael Scherer, reporter Michael Scherer and ombudsman Michael Scherer. The transcripts of these discussions would be forwarded to a therapist who would be working to get the human being Michael Scherer out of bed in the morning.
I am joking of course. (Please, I beg of you, don't start that Web site.) But my point is real. As the panel at YearlyKos showed today, reporters across the board are being forced to look inward and question how we do our job. And we are discovering the following: Thoughtful press criticism, facilitated by the Internet, has an impact and is often useful. We reporters are professionals, always struggling to soar higher, but we are also often like everyone else, just getting by, stumbling down a dark hallway hoping not to fall on our face. Here's to all of us, reporter and reader together, making the news better.