The creator of the brilliant television series The Wire today asked Congress to legalize monopolistic collusion by newspapers. Only they can really cover City Hall, he said. Apparently he hasn't been there in a while.
The Wire creator, David Simon, was a cops reporter at the Baltimore Sun for 12 years, ending in 1995. He then made a lucrative second career in fiction and Hollywood before detouring into a sideline as a cranky, reactionary media pundit this past year.
Simon told the Senate Commerce Committee today bloggers don't go to city council meetings, or know what the hell is going on if they do — a clichéd, out of touch refrain common among newspapermen who can't be bothered to do any reporting on the assertion. The Wall Street Journal published an op-ed from a Newark Star-Ledger columnist to this effect:
Don't expect that Web site to hire somebody to sit through town-council meetings... a lot of bloggers will be found gasping for breath under piles of pure ennui. There is nothing more tedious than a public meeting.
New York Times media columnist David Carr often capitalizes on the idea that bloggers don't do government in his repeated columns about how newspapers must restrict their websites:
The capacity to produce accountability reporting... and robust coverage of public officials is not sustainable under current revenue models.
And here's Simon, right before winding up to his punch line about "relaxing certain anti-trust prohibitions:"
I found this argument odd, because as a newspaper reporter who spent a few years covering a town much like Baltimore — Oakland, California — I often found that bloggers were the only other writers in the room at certain city council committee meetings and at certain community events. They tended to be the sort of persistently-involved residents newspapermen often refer to as "gadflies" — deeply, obsessively concerned about issues large and infinitesimal in the communities where they lived.
And they weren't exactly a big secret. Here's a year-old San Francisco Chronicle article that Simon apparently missed about some of this motley crew; here's a report in Oakland's alt-weekly recounting one Oakland blogger's post on a politically-rigged block-grant meeting in West Oakland (nitty gritty enough for you, Simon?); Here's the Oakland Tribune quoting various bloggers on an intricate city council debate involving cabaret permits.
Collectively, these bloggers are doing just what Simon suggests: attending meetings, developing sources and holding government accountable every day.
And the best of the crop are doing so individually, on their own and, somehow, basically for free. Simon should spend as much time as he can on A Better Oakland (original posts down the center column), a thoroughly reported blog on the nitty-gritty of Oakland politics, complete with key video moments from government meetings, illuminating crime analysis, skillful fact-checking of political puffery, transit coverage, development coverage, thorough meeting recaps, spicy guest posts, and, yes, the occasional media criticism (along with support for the press against government stonewalling).
(Disclosure: The writer of A Better Oakland is among the bloggers I turned to as knowledgeable sources when covering Oakland, and I now count her as a friend. But you don't have to take my word about her; read the Chronicle and Express links above.)
You'll find communities of civic-minded bloggers in all sorts of places. The New York Times recently profiled the Brooklyn blog Gowanus Lounge, described elsewhere as a publication of "hard news scoops and opinionated rants" with "influence into City Hall and the executive suites of the city's biggest developers." The site was part of an ecosystem of any number of other local news blogs.
Even the mayor of the tiny city of Salisbury, Maryland claims to be "under siege" from bloggers.
With so much quality civic reporting already being done online for little or no pay, it stands to reason we could eventually get quality government reporting entirely from bloggers, both professional and amateur, rather than depending on a federally-coddled cabal of conspiring nonprofit newspapers, as Simon envisions.
And there are reasons to think the quality would actually be better, since so many of the writers are deeply invested residents, rather than the sort of superficially-engaged, careerist professional journalists portrayed so well by Simon in The Wire and all too common in American newsrooms.
Arianna Huffington may not be the ideal mogul to lead journalism into the future, but her own senate testimony offered an impressively rational and articulate vision of what's to come, at least next to Simon's:
For too long, traditional media have been afflicted with Attention Deficit Disorder — they are far too quick to drop a story — even a good one, in their eagerness to move on to the Next Big Thing. Online journalists, meanwhile, tend to have Obsessive Compulsive Disorder… they chomp down on a story and stay with it, refusing to move off it until they've gotten down to the marrow.
In the future, these two traits will come together and create a much healthier kind of journalism.
...We must never forget that our current media culture led to the widespread failure (with a few honorable exceptions) to serve the public interest by accurately covering two of the biggest stories of our time: the run-up to the war in Iraq and the financial meltdown.
That's why, as journalism transitions to a new and different place, the emphasis should not be on subsidizing what exists now but on how to rededicate ourselves to the highest calling of journalists — which is to ferret out the truth, wherever it leads. Even if it means losing our all-access-pass to the halls of power.
(Last image from the New Yorker.)