This post is a meditation on the relationship between blogs and the mainstream media in this narrow niche of the blogosphere related to the Arab-Israeli conflict. What are we to them? What are they to us? Do we want to join ’em? Can we even if we wanted to? Do we want them to join us? Would they even if they could? Do we want to write for ’em? Is it worth the trouble? Will they come to us anyway if our reporting is vital and exclusive enough?
I’m like most ambitious political bloggers…I have a strong point of view and I not only want my readers to know it, but I want to reach the broadest possible audience. And in my case I want to do this not only here, but in Israel and really anywhere in the world that the conflict is major political currency. I relish my opportunities to commune with a larger audience. Until a year ago or so, I had a semi-regular gig doing that at Comment is Free. When that ended, I had a short-lived gig at Al Jazeera English until Firas Atrachi left his editor’s job there. For some time after those outlets stopped being interested in my work, I was not only frustrated and upset, I aggressively sought out other opportunities. I even got as far as a kill fee (but only after I asked for it upon rejection) for a piece commissioned by the London Review of Books!
And don’t get me wrong, I would go a long way for such gigs. But I’ve developed a grudging acceptance that my place may not be in the more MSM (and within this I unfortunately include the progressive media outlets which also uniformly have rejected my work). At least not as a bylined author. There may be many reasons for this. Maybe they’re important and worth cogitating about and maybe not.
In at least two recent instances, editors asked me to write pieces on spec for them without making any commitment that it would be published. I turned them down. I think those days are over. Gee, it would be nice to be published in a certain progressive national Jewish journal, but not if it first requires a crapshoot, not knowing if what I slave over will end up in print or in someone’s Deleted Items folder. Either it’s because I’m somehow beyond that or now I have the bully pulpit of this blog in a way I didn’t have until recently (more on this in the following paragraph).
Just because something I want like publication in the mainstream doesn’t happen doesn’t leave me by the wayside. In some sense, since the Anat Kamm story, I have found a focus for my work that I did not have previously. Now I understand that one of my most important contributions (thanks to an important collaborator) will be in tracking the vicissitudes of Israeli democracy through the particular lens of national security and its intelligence services. Who watches the spooks? In Israel, not terribly many.
But let’s return to how this post originated: I spend more time promoting this blog on Facebook than on Twitter since it seems to generate more traffic and more readers appear to be on Facebook and interact with the blog from it. So last night, I did something I do very rarely. I reviewed those 475 Twitter followers I have. And I was struck by something interesting. Quite a number of them were journalists. Yes, some were NGO staffers, one even a retired CEO of a major medical technology company, another a Jewish federation executive, and pretty dubiously the SecyClintonBlog (NOTE: sincere apologies to Stacy Beam, who created this blog, which has no affiliation with the State Dept., and who does not approve of Clinton’s approach to the I-P conflict).
But the journalists were what interested me since I’d already noticed a number of journalists who subscribed to this blog. One of most unlikely ones would appear to be the Israel correspondent for a certain American cable news company that is extremely fair and balanced. Not sure what she expects to find here unless perhaps stories that she can tell her New York bosses she would never cover.
Well, perhaps that subscriber is a bit more likely than the assistant coach for a certain NBA team that recently deserted Seattle (no fault of his, I might add) for greener pastures. I was also tickled that during my coverage of the Uri Blau-Anat Kamm story, Haaretz editor Dov Alfon started following my Tweets. I have no way of knowing whether this is true (though someone I respect who is quite cautious about these matters affirmed his conviction that it is true), but Alfon may possibly also have posted a critical comment on my coverage here using the rather elegant nom de plume of Schockentchick (as in “apparatchik”), which I at first glance misread as “Schocken chick,” leading me to wonder why a female Haaretz reporter would refer to herself in such an odd way.
Others that are more standard and follow this blog in some fashion include reporters for the BBC, The Independent, Haaretz, Jerusalem Post (and even a very senior editor, sha-shtill!), Time Magazine, Maan News, 7th Eye, PRI’s The World, and Think Progress.
While I was looking over this list I thought to myself: instead of following me, why don’t you actually incorporate more of my point of view into your reporting? When you look at some of the most prominent correspondents for the more reputable publications and look at who their informants are it makes one’s eyes glaze over. Yesterday, I linked to a piece by Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy on the settlement freeze extension negotiation. Who was his main informant? Robert Wexler. I kid you not. Wexler was Obama’s Florida’s Jewish errand boy for the last election campaign and left Congress nearly two years ago and for some reason is still a valued commentator. Not that I would begrudge Wexler if he had anything in the least illuminating to say. But it was the same standard, boring, soft-core drivel that you hear over and over from Administration hacks (or was that “flacks?”) who are spinning for one master or another.
Ethan Bronner too has been a pet peeve of mine in these pages as someone who drones on and often producing neither heat nor light. Why are these people afraid of introducing into the mix viewpoints less often heard? Of course, part of the reason is that the reporters themselves have a very limited range of vision for their subject and therefore naturally wouldn’t even think that a more challenging voice should be incorporated into the mix.
I should take a modest step back here to acknowledge that since I’ve begun reporting more intensively on Israeli intelligence matters my blog has been picked up more widely in sources like the N.Y. Times and all the major Israeli publications with the exception of the erstwhile liberal one, Haaretz (go figure). I’ve been interviewed and/or profiled by media in Switzerland, Turkey, Russia, and Israel. In a sense I even owe that hated emblem of Iraq-era reporting, Judith Miller, a major shout out. She discovered my reporting on Anat Kamm and featured it in The Daily Beast. Yes, I’m sorry to say that at times in this day and age it requires a celebrity journalist to really break a story. And sometimes you even learn to trust a reporter whose politics you may disagree with to do the right thing on this particular story. Had she not taken this up, the Israeli press wouldn’t have reached a critical mass of publicly-expressed ridicule that led to the Shabak relenting on Kamm’s gag order. Had they not done so, who knows whether Kamm might still be under secret detention facing a life sentence.
Another post that spurred some of my thinking on this was Phil Weiss’ report of a talk given by the estimable Israeli blogger and freelance journalist, Noam Sheizaf of Promised Land. Noam seems to really be feeling to power of his own blog to impact the public political and media discourse, which led him to say (I’m including some of Phil’s set-up):
He [Noam] told us of his own success. Reporters at the New York Times and Politico follow him on twitter; this would have been incomprehensible to him as a young journalist, that he would ever have that type of influence inside the Beltway:
“And this is what I wanted, to have a political impact. Blogging is not just reporting, it is engaged reporting. We are engaged in an internal battle in Israel. I’m using these tools of facebook and twitter to push something…
“I live-blogged [the flotilla] for four days from the Hebrew media. Traffic to my site went up ten times. [It took the IDF five hours to get out its version of the story.] And those five hours framed much of how the story was handled and Israel has done damage control since then. And I understand why Hamas has said, the flotilla is better than 10,000 rockets.”
Sheizaf’s pieces have been linked by the The Washington Post and The New York Times, but those links are chopped liver next to Glenn Greenwald. “When Glenn Greenwald said, go to this guy on Twitter– Glenn Greenwald is like a mega important person on the net, who is hardly known in the mainstream… Social media changes everything in the game.”
I should make clear that while I’m very sympathetic to Noam’s narrative and believed it at one time myself (and in fact, wrote a chapter, The Blogging Wars, for the Independent Jewish Voices book, A Time to Speak Out, on precisely this subject making almost precisely this claim), I’m no longer so sure he’s right. Or at least, not so sure he’s right in the way he thinks he is.
Yes, as bloggers we are earning a larger share of the “pie” of public attention for our reporting. This is happening, in my estimation, because of the desperation of current political circumstances which are turning both the MSM and their normal readers to new and different alternative sources. It’s also happening because more and more the mainstream reporters don’t have the goods and we do. We’re breaking stories that either they used to break, or that they can’t break, or that their editors have no interest in letting them break.
But I’m not sure that we’re really impacting the MSM in any real or serious way. That we’re impacting the overall discourse, of that I am sure. But really how much does having a NY Times or Politico reporter follow you on Twitter indicate in terms of whether you’re penetrating the Beltway political haze? And yes, Glenn Greenwald, when he does report on the conflict does excellent work, but he hardly seems engaged in any serious way with the work of those of us who are on the firing line doing this sort of original reporting. That Greenwald plugged Noam’s Twitter feed is terrific. But how much does it all mean?
So, my main question to all of you is what do we as bloggers with distinctive, important political voices rarely heard in the mainstream want from them? What do we have the right to expect? And how should we go about getting it? My conviction is that there is now a critical mass of progressive blog reporting on the Israeli-Arab conflict that deserves wider circulation and prominence. Some of us like Ali Abunimah seem to make their own breaks and turn their operations into spectacularly successful platforms to disseminate their perspective. Others of us seem to fight and struggle for every scrap of recognition that comes our way. My question is how do we do more of the former and less of the latter? How do we make those breaks for ourselves? Or will those breaks come to those of us who, to parapharse Milton, serve by standing and waiting, all the while doing the hard slog of reporting those stories that no one else can, or knows how to report?
- Blogger Sheizaf would rather write about cinema, but he has been called to witness a great crime (mondoweiss.net)