In Defence of Doug Bailey

by Dan H

Dan is an Internet Heretic
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Arthur recently posted a link to an article (or technically, I suppose, an op-ed) by a man named Doug Bailey. This article bore the rather inflammatory title Got a comment? Keep it to yourself and went on to explain how the comments sections of newspaper websites are “insidiously contributing to the devaluation of journalism”.

When I first read this article, I thought “oh for fuck’s sake, don’t be an idiot Bailey, people don’t confuse the comments section of newspaper websites with actual journalism, any more than they confuse Children’s Letters to God with the Sermon on the Mount.

Then I read the rebuttal written, I believe, by an outraged member of the public.

This rebuttal does not, as any sensible person would do, defend newspaper comments sections as being a convention of the medium, or as being functionally equivalent to a newspaper letters column, or as providing a forum in which to foster debate about the issues raised in the article.

No, the guy gets angry that Doug Bailey dared to suggests that journalists might have better journalistic credentials than people who aren’t journalists. This is rather like complaining that a professional chef suggested that they could cook better than you.

The rebuttal begins with the following sarcastic observation:
I understand how much lower we are on the journalistic food chain, clearly signifying how much less education, wit, and knowledge we have on politics, religion, history, the world, and life itself.

Okay, first off: you are not “lower on the journalistic food chain”. You are not on the journalistic food chain because you are not a fucking journalist. You are just a guy who posts comments on a website. I disagreed with Bailey’s original op-ed because I honestly didn’t think that anybody would be stupid enough to confuse “legitimate journalism” with “stuff people put on the internet”. It turns out I was wrong.

Secondly, if there was ever evidence that professional journalists were better at journalism than Dudes Off The Internet, it's these two articles.

Let's start with the titles. “Got a comment? Keep it to yourself” is sharp, punchy, and gets the point across in a simple, direct way. The title of the rebuttal is “It's one place in paper where public can speak up”. Which is astonishingly bad. You might as well go the whole hog and call your response “I ... like ... think it's good if people can ... like ... say what they think about stuff.”

The text is similarly terrible. Bailey indulges in a certain amount of over the top rhetoric, but he clearly knows what he's doing:
But as satiated as I am with the enormous and varied flow of available information, I’ve concluded there’s one outlet that should be abandoned: those comment forums at the end of articles on newspaper websites.

It has flow, it has style, it has clarity. It has awareness of audience and a sense of structure. Compare:

Get a grip on reality. The 2006 Time Person of the Year wasn’t really you, Doug Bailey. It was meant to be all of us, signified by and due to the computer on which the pronoun was printed on the magazine’s cover.


I'm sorry “signified by and due to the computer on which the pronoun was printed on the magazine’s cover”? And who, outside the smug, self-congratulatory sphere of Self-Important Internet Fuckwads actually thought that the whole “You” thing meant anything?

For what it's worth, other Time People of the Year have included George W Bush (twice) “The American Soldier” (twice) and “The Computer” (in 1982). It's wholly meaningless. It's like those compilations of 100 Greatest [BLANK] ever, which for some reason always have something from the last eighteen months at number one (this got completely risible during the Millennium celebrations, when somehow the late 1990s managed to produce the greatest examples of everything for the last thousand years).

The thing is that Bailey and “Damian Aufiero” (who wrote the reply) both make exactly the same mistake about the comments sections of news articles chiefly, I think, because they've both bought into the Time-2006 bullshit about the Democratising Power of the Internet.

People who believe that “You” really was (were?) the most important figure in the media in 2006 believe it because they've bought into the idea that “media outlets” are run by “corporations” and therefore “ordinary people” have no say in what they print whereas “the internet” is available to “everybody” and is therefore democratic. This is clearly stupid.

Ordinary people can absolutely control the contents of the printed media. They can do it in two way. Firstly, they can become reputable journalists. Journalists are not airdropped from Mars, they are just guys like you and me. They went out and they got jobs in the news media and worked their way up to the point where they could put op-eds in the Boston Globe. The other way the general public can control the contents of the printed media is by buying it, or refraining from buying it. The Daily Mail isn't full of parochial, bigoted horseshit because it's run by evil villains who want to spread hatred and xenophobia,it's full of parochial bigoted horseshit because its target demographic is a parochial, bigoted horses arse.

Conversely, the fact that “anybody” can put something on the internet doesn't make it free or democratic. Websites are run by private individuals just as much as newspapers are, and the web has its giants and its distribution outlets just like the conventional media (and indeed these giants are often the same people – the biggest news website in the US isn't boingboing.net, it's CNN.com). Yes, I can put anything I want on the internet, but I can't get anything I want onto slashdot , or the Escapist or hell even WoW.com, any more than I can get it into the Times.

The problem is that there's something peculiarly legitimising about the internet. Because it's so accessible, and because there is no cosmetic difference between a website run by a multi-million-dollar corporation, and one run by some guy out of his garage, it's easy to assume that “writing a comment on boston.com during your lunchbreak” and “writing articles for the Boston Globe for a living” are functionally equivalent. They are, of course, not.

Putting a comment on the bottom of an article on a news site is roughly equivalent to talking loudly about it in the office during lunch. Of the people who read the original article, most won't even glance at the comments. Of those who do, most will do it only as a courtesy before writing their own comment. Of the people who pay more than cursory attention to what you wrote, the only ones that will really focus on it are people who think you are a moron.

Simple test: when was the last time you saw somebody say “hey, check out this really interesting thing this random guy said in the comments section of this article”.

The internet is supposed to be about communication, and it is, but the nature of that communication is a lot more complicated than people give it credit for. When a journalist posts an article on a newspaper website, they are communicating the ideas in that article to the world at large. It is tempting to think that when you post a comment on an article that you are communicating your feelings back to the person who wrote it. This is, of course, nonsense. Doug Bailey may have broken a taboo by admitting it, but you can bet whatever it is you normally bet on these sorts of things that journalists don't read the comments on their own articles. Leaving aside the practical considerations (a lot of them will be reposted from the print media anyway, I don't see why you'd submit an article to your editor then log onto the website to see if anybody had commented on the electronic version) I simply can't imagine that a professional journalist cares whether people comment on their articles or not. Comments are the lifeblood of the blogger, not the newspaper columnist.

The comments section of an article isn't about telling the author what you thought about it, or even about telling other readers what you thought, it's about the act of participation. It's almost like an act of reflective learning. If you just read an article, then it's just so much conceptual roughage, which passes through your brain without really impacting on it. By allowing you to write a comment on the article, they get you to participate (or at least, to feel like you are participating) in the whole thing and that gives it a grounding in reality that the internet – due to its ephemeral nature - otherwise lacks.

Comments aren't there to be read, they aren't there to let anybody “have their say” about anything – whatever the BBC might want you to believe. They are there to create the sense of participation, to get the reader to engage with the text in a way they otherwise would not.

The only thing that makes them a threat to legitimate journalism is morons who think that they constitute legitimate journalism.
Themes: Topical
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Comments (go to latest)
Rami at 21:05 on 2009-07-30
I think there's a peculiar kind of doublethink that goes with the 'democratising power' of the Internet, and that's that the printed word still carries some connotations of authority. What ends up happening is that something written on Wikipedia is treated with the same kind of deference as something in the Encyclopedia Brittanica -- they're both in neatly typed black letters on a white background, aren't they?

I'm guilty of it myself — a few years ago I was trying to work out how certain dates were institutionally defined, and the Wikipedia article was both authoritative and detailed. Excitedly I mentioned this to a friend, who immediately cautioned me not to put too much stock in what the article said because, it turned out, he had written it.

It's a story I like to tell and recall because it reminds me to take things I read on the Internet with a grain of salt. It's surprising how few people do.
Dan H at 23:10 on 2009-07-30
Although I suppose, on the flip side, Encyclopedia Britannica articles are written by *somebody*. Presumably they can't get certified experts for every single entry. Heck, it's possible that nowadays Encyclopedia Britannica entries are researched *on wikipedia*.
Rude Cyrus at 02:30 on 2009-07-31
Believe me Dan, spend a few days listening to what constitues "journalism" in the American media and you'll be begging for morons leaving comments on boston.com.
Rami at 06:26 on 2009-07-31
It has flow, it has style, it has clarity. It has awareness of audience and a sense of structure.

I would contend that, actually, American media is all about this. "Fair and balanced" it may not be, but stylish, clear, and aware of its audience it certainly is.
Jen Spencer at 08:32 on 2009-07-31
I direct the honourable gentleman to Charlie Brooker's Newswipe program, Episode 2, the first part of which can be found here:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_QN_hd9LeSs
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