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The internet is great for journalism, but it’s also destroying our lives

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In a couple of days, the LRB is having a panel on the author in the age of the internet, and having some experience of industrial conditions for the last 30 years, here are my thoughts, mostly about journalism:

I don’t think anyone can maintain that the internet has not produced tremendous progress for the business of exchanging ideas and stories. More people are writing than ever before, and there are more better writers at work. Read a newspaper from the 1960s and it is like watching baseball from that era, the old form seems lax and entitled compared to the energetic engaged manner of the average internet journalist.

The internet’s greatest achievement is to level, somewhat, traditional divisions of status and authority. Till a few years ago, we were led by a priesthood of journalists and editors, even after the time when because of the internet, anyone and his brother were learning to communicate ideas just as well in social media. That was an insupportable structure. Having made a good living in that priesthood for 25 years, I can summon the decadence of the old order in countless ways, but the picture that leaps to mind is of a group of fact checkers and lawyers and editors gathered around any story of importance that was about to be published, and one looked to the other who looked to the other and said, “Can we say this?” That question was asked again and again in corporate media, because there was too much riding on one article, too much money, too much reputation, too much power and status for anyone to be allowed to say what they really thought; and so the imperative that a good writer is supposed to feel, Is this an accurate expression of my thoughts? was crushed under a lot of external pressures.

Readers understood that their writers were being held hostage in corporate dungeons, and they rebelled, and demanded honesty and immediacy. That is the ultimate truth of the internet: if someone had not invented the internet, we would have had to invent it.

We are in the midst of a revolution and the best guidepost here is the invention of the printing press, which took power away from clerics and churches and scribes in the 15th century and transferred it to an intelligentsia. As Nabil O-Khowaiter, whom I met on the internet, has pointed out to me, the Catholic heretic Jan Hus was burned at the stake in the 15th century before the invention of the printing press, and after the printing press a man with very similar renegade ideas, Martin Luther, was able to flourish and transform institutions forever. This is one of the great pleasures/privileges of being a journalist now: participating in a revolution. And while I don’t know who the Martin Luther of the internet is, no one can quarrel with the idea that in the bad old days Juan Cole and Glenn Greenwald would have been frustrated blowhards, condemned to express their ideas to bored dinner guests and friends, or fulminating in letters to the editor. Maybe they would have at last gotten book contracts. Today both of them are true stars, and deservedly so. They have found their community, a highly sophisticated global one, and thereby threaten the hegemony of mainstream institutions, such as the New York Times, in their traditional role of managing the agenda. I wonder what would happen today if Judy Miller were publishing her fraud about weapons of mass destruction in the runup to the Iraq war. I wonder.

The other great thing about the internet from a journalistic standpoint is that there is more information available than ever, and the boundaries of human knowledge are being expanded rapidly. John Mearsheimer says that his and Steve Walt’s book, The Israel Lobby, which might have been contraband in another era, was kept alive despite savage reviews that accused the authors of anti-semitism, by the active discussion of their ideas on the internet, including at this site. The globalization of information has made us all smarter. I read something in Haaretz every day and something from Ma’an news agency in Palestine and frequently the Daily Star in Lebanon and the National out of the Gulf. This is a treasure I never had in the bad old days.

Blogposts should be short and in that spirit let me get to the downsides of the internet, in terms of journalistic production. The immediacy that I and so many other readers cherish has brought a price in the lack of considered writing. You don’t have time to think things over, and the loafing mood that Walt Whitman said that a poet required has been destroyed in internet production. That spirit lives on in a large portion of humanity, I’m sure, but they’re not really welcome on the internet, they post too infrequently.

The generalist is under siege too, the person who knows everything. You can’t know everything when there is so much more to know that is so accessible. Leading experts are created within their fields—Stephen Walt—but despite his maturity and well-roundedness, I doubt that even Walt would be persuasive on health care policy or the charter school movement. Of course, the readers are also specialized, and they are also writers, commenters, and they run in herds. This site has a non-Zionist/anti-Zionist tribe gathered. The internet is tribal—James North told me this a long time ago. And that’s not a good thing for dialogue.

Grammar has gone to hell. I noticed a verb participle I got wrong the other day and didn’t care to try and fix it. I thought, who cares, or more to the point, the merit of my argument is not going to be judged on such a guild-based factitious basis, as it might have been in the old days, so forget about it. (And by the way, if you think the internet is not creating its own elites you’re wrong.) The same goes for typo’s. Who has time for that?

I have no time at all. The immediacy of the internet, the 24/7 news cycle, the expectation of readers and writers that important news will be pounced and pronounced upon within an hour or two—it has turned all our lives into hell. My wife is also an internet journalist, and I see it happening to her, she comes back from a party and goes to the computer. And I don’t even have a smartphone or a blackberry, trying to hold the line on my sane offline hours. I work harder than I ever have before and have little income to show for it.

Money. I used to talk nonstop about when are they going to monetize the internet, but I’m not going to complain about money here. Oscar Wilde said that writers were like lovers, they did it for love first and then a few friends and then for money, but he was wrong. Samuel Johnson said that no one but a blockhead ever wrote for anything but money and he was wrong too. People will do it for love, that is the definition of the word amateur; and remember that the late J.D. Salinger cherished the amateur reader, and the amateur writer too. The internet is letting more and more of them in; and it’s good for everyone.

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