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Mon

29

Jan

2007

The Powers That Be
Monday, 29 January 2007 22:48
by Jayne Lyn Stahl

Yesterday, a friend emailed me an article titled "The Authority Question," by the media critic for The National Journal, a gentleman by the name of William Powers. In addition to writing for The National Journal, Mr. Powers is a frequent contributor to The Atlantic Monthly and was, at one time, a reporter for The Washington Post.

At first, I was baffled as to why this friend, who virtually never forwards pieces on to me, would send me this. I had never heard of William Powers, but confess to having been intrigued by the title. The article opens with "Does anyone in the media still speak with authority? Does authority even matter any more? By 'authority' I mean the prestige, clout, and trustiworthiness of the big brand-name newspapers, magazines, and TV networks, back in the 20th century?" He goes on to lament the passage of "traditional news outlets," suggesting that the concept of authority itself has become "outmoded and quaint, like milkmen and VHS recorders." Mr. Powers appears to hold on to antiquated notions of authority the way an infant holds on to a security blanket.

One's focus is then instantly transported away from a provocative, and important discussion of recent statements by the deputy assistant secretary of defense for detainee, Charles Stimson, whose controversial condemnation of lawyers and law firms evoked almost universal contempt to a discussion of form, and how superior coverage of the Stimson debacle is by USA Today and The Washington Post, when compared with that of the blogosphere. Powers does a Google search for articles about Stimson which leads him a laudable piece he finds in USA Today. It also leads him to a piece I wrote about Stimson's comments that appeared in The Huffington Post, which he describes as "an influential blog...near the top of the heap," but one that doesn't yet rise to the level of being called an authority. Nor do I, for that matter.

Powers chooses, to my chagrin, two phrases from my article, both meant to be humorous, to suggest that not only is my style of writing "inapt," a rather awkward word, in my opinion but, more importantly, who the hell am I to have anything posted on HuffPo in the first place? "And while Jayne Lyn Stahl may be a brilliant poet and playwright, I've never heard of her and wasn't ready to trust her." Indeed, and I'd never heard of William Powers either, so we're even. I challenge Mr. Powers to name 5 contemporary poets, living, preferably. Somehow, I suspect Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson would find themselves on his list, as does William Butler Yeats who he clearly read, but didn't understand any better than he understood me.

"Most journalists are serious people, and serious people are supposed to discuss politics as ideas, not entertainment. But if the devices of entertainment are delivering the ideas, maybe news outlets everywhere should be helping us better understand how it all works, and who exactly are these people who are working so hard, night and day, to seduce us?" Oh, so is that what the folks at HuffPo are up to, after all, not to show diversity of opinion, and worldview, but to seduce guys in pinstripe suits who appear to be missing a sense of humor?

Obviously, someone like Hunter Thompson would be held in equal esteem to someone like myself, except, of course, that Thompson has name recognition.

"It would be marvelous if every voice in the new agora could have equal sway," Powers concludes, and yes, yes, it would be almost as "marvelous" if those who suffer from metaphysical agoraphobia wouldn't loiter behind half-baked, duplicitous notions of moral, and professional authority. As a question of authority is, after all, more about context than anything else. Clearly, an image of the president "poll dancing," or the ironic use of the phrase "beloved Pentagon" wouldn't appear on the editorial pages of The New York Times anytime soon, but they were not submitted to the NYT, or WaPo either. Nor, for that matter, was the writer of those phrases awarded the stock options, or monetary compensation of, say, someone who writes for The National Journal, but this isn't about money; this is about inclusion. Yes, Mr. Powers, that's right, you can keep your 401 K, I want my ideas to count as much as yours do, so sue me, and the rest of the lumpen proletariat who are audacious enough to think that we, too, have a right to a space in the new frontier of online expression.

As one who copiously invests himself in what he calls "straight ahead journalism and centrist no-nonsense positions on public issues," one wonders if his "no-nonsense journalism" requires sitting squarely on the center, and maintaining that only traditional vehicles for news delivery, the mainstream media, matter? Not only are his notions of authority provincial, but they're rigidified.

And, lest there be any confusion, when Powers speaks of "authority" what he really means is that one has to have the right credentials, or pedigree to join the insider's club of "elite news outlets." But then, one might expect this kind of antediluvian banter from someone who writes, too, that "Online media boosters often speak of establishment authority as a vestige of the media Dark Ages. The people have stormed the castle! They're speaking out in their own voices rather than through those arrogant go-betweens, the newspapers and TV networks." What is he so afraid of, that maybe someone he'd flunk in Journalism 101 could have a wider audience than he has?

For the media critic of a prominent Washington, D.C. news magazine, Mr. Powers appears not to understand that precisely what distinguishes the practice of blogging from that of editorializing, or writing traditional opinion pieces, is that one doesn't need to present one's press credentials in order to post their thoughts, and ideas, and while the two phrases, taken out of context, from an important piece I wrote were less than exemplary of my work, they didn't deserve the kind of personal attack on my credibility that ensued. Moreover, using the Powers prescription for reliable journalism, Walt Whitman, also a poet and an essayist, as well as W.B. Yeats, whose poem he quotes, would fare no better than I did. I doubt if either man would have passed Journalism 101 if Professor Powers were keeping score. Not to put too fine a point on it, there is a often a notable stylistic difference between writing for blogs, and writing an op ed piece for a daily newspaper.

Following his example, I decided to do a Google search of my own, and found another article by William Powers that appeared in "The National Journal" on March 3, 2006 in which he called blogs "overhyped and underperforming," referencing a Gallup Poll that stated that "only 9 percent of U.S. Internet users said they frequently read blogs. Worse, blogs are flatlining," he wrote. My, my, it seems he has yet to realize that bias is, to journalists, a four-letter word. Maybe he should have fessed up to this bias when he began to speak, with such egregious moral authority, on what he considered to be the best stylistic writing on the heinous comments of a high placed Washington, D.C. official. Given his preference for form over substance, it's no wonder he's no longer a reporter for The Washington Post; ah, but that's hitting below the Belt-way.

While Mr. Powers' obvious grief over our national loss of a sense of tradition and authority is moving, I, for one lament the his lack of disclosure about his bias against blogging. Clearly, this bias would affect his evaluation of my piece, and those of others less fortunate in that they have yet to come to his attention.

Indeed, if he is such a great friend to journalism, then why isn't he spending his valuable, professional time time and energy speaking up for a federal shield law to protect his colleagues from having to compromise the confidentiality of their sources this week in the trial of Scooter Libby instead of deriding the extemporaneous and, by comparison, inconsequential online posts of someone he's never heard of? Could it be because he doesn't care about a federal shield law? Could it be that he doesn't care about anything unless he has it, as they say, on good authority?

Conceding the "inaptness" of my diction, one can't help but notice that Powers' focus is how one says something rather than what is said, which is rather dangerous given that he positions himself in the nation's capital. He must have had one hell of a time with Donald Rumsfeld, as well as the president.

More importantly, Powers misses the point altogether. What makes Web commentary revolutionary is that one doesn't need to show a press pass, or provide proof of citizenship in order to gain entry. One merely needs to have good ideas, and, more often than not, express them well. Interestingly, but not surprisingly, he never once denigrated, or even referenced, my ideas, only how I expressed them. He may have been too busy watching to see how that all the "i"s were dotted.

At a time when journalism, as a profession, has faced the gravest threat since the days of Joe McCarthy, it's ludicrous to think that a Washington, D.C. columnist, and former reporter for The Washington Post wastes his time with what amounts to little more than a bad pun. Instead of attempting to slap an "R" rating on what we read, "restricted to professionals only," the focus should be on this administration's attempts to contain the free flow of information, as well as its ongoing assault on a free press.

Moreover, whoever invented blogging obviously didn't intend it to be letter perfect, but to address the kind of exclusive, glass ceiling, professional elitism which is the subtext, and foundation, of "A Question of Authority." The fact that relative unknowns like myself can find their spontaneous ramblings posted on the same page as those of "establishment" writers like David Mamet, and Nora Ephron. shows, if nothing else, that one of the wonderful things about authority, in a democracy, is its capacity for change, and those who question that the concept of authority frequently morphs haven't studied history. What's more, anyone who resists change should be collecting fossils, and not working in news.

When thinking about his article, I can't help but be reminded of a stanza from another poet, and one Powers has, doubtless heard of, Bob Dylan:

"You walk into the room with your pencil in your hand, You see somebody naked, and you say who is that man, You try so hard but you don't understand, just what you will say when you get home, cause something is happening and you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?"
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