Maybe these are the best days for journalism
One night last week I was having dinner in a Jacksonville, Fla., restaurant. At the table next to me, a Joe the Plumber clone was ranting about how terrible and biased the media had been during the campaign. And I'll confess I had an urge to whack his neatly shaved ditto head.
What's the matter with you? Has your brain gone soft? You have access today to the biggest and the broadest set of media choices in human history. You have it way better than you deserve, you knuckle-dragging skinhead. Kwitcherbitchin and enjoy it ... while it lasts.
I didn't, of course. But it was in that moment that I realized how thoroughly we in "the media" also have suffered our own brains gone soft.
In all the whining about the End of the World as We Know It -- as newspapers throw employees overboard in a desperate attempt to stay afloat -- we've missed the bigger story: the landscape is broader, deeper, richer, better than it's ever been at any time in human history.
I'm not in an overoptimistic manic phase here. In fact, I don't think it's going to last.
It's just that right here, right now, we have an extraordinary combination of centralized industrial-scale, professional, "objective" journalism and decentralized small-scale "advocacy" journalism. We have the 20th century media overlaid by a rich chaos last seen in the 19th century, kicked into hyperdrive by 21st century technology.
In following the presidential campaign, I found my own media consumption patterns changing. I very rarely look at print. I watched a lot of MSNBC and CNN, of course, wincing at times at the partisan excesses of Keith Olbermann and changing the station to avoid the racist anti-immigrant rants of Lou Dobbs.
But most of my information came from the Internet; TV was just infotainment retelling what I already knew.
And much to my surprise, a great deal of the information came not from the websites of industrial-scale journalism but from small-scale startups and advocates.
One such source was Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, which earlier this year won a George Polk Award for legal reporting as it exposed the Bush administration's politically motivated dismissals of U.S. attorneys.
Another was Ariana Huffington's "Internet newspaper," the Huffington Post, which serves up a stew of bloggers and links to media sites.
The "netroots" megasite Daily Kos, perhaps the largest nexus of "progressive" activism, proved to be a rich source of not just opinion but hard information, particularly in the commissioning and analysis of polling data and in the tracking of "downticket" races in individual states.
The list wouldn't be complete without mentioning Politico.com, which generally combines the traditional "objective reporting" journalism model with the new-media toolkit, including an impressive array of bloggers.
Then there's numbers wonk Nate Silver's FiveThirtyEight.com, which not only proved to be a great source of analysis of poll data but also exposed the utter collapse of the Republican ground game as it visited local campaign offices across the country, finding "Closed" signs and empty chairs in the McCain offices.
(I tried looking at right-wing websites as well, but generally found them to be a poor source of information and sadly overrun by angry racist crackpots, which probably was a reflection of the intellectual collapse of the Republican Party that will be analyzed mercilessly during coming months.)
All of this coexists, for the moment, with free access to every major newspaper in the world just one click away.
And free access to the BBC's fine level-headed journalism (on cable TV as well as online), including its groundbreaking reporting on the Georgian brutality against Russian minorities in Ossetia that somehow was ignored by pretty much everybody else (and denied by McCain's Georgia-lobbyist foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann).
Need I go on about this embarrassment of riches?
It's not going to last, of course, and if you're in the mood for hand-wringing, go right ahead. We will see the collapse of some traditional media companies in coming years. We will some some newspapers disappear. We will see many more job losses. Much more change is coming.
But keep an eye on the undiscovered country, and enjoy what you have now. While it lasts.