Morley Safer attacks the vast blog wasteland

Morley Safer made note of the newspaper crisis and took a swipe at the blogosphere this week as he accepted an award at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut.

Receiving the Fred Friendly First Amendment Award, named after the TV news pioneer, Safer said broadcasters get stories from newspapers and can’t replace the reporting the best of them do, according to the university’s account of the evening.

Then, Quinnipiac’s press release says, Safer added, “The blogosphere is no alternative, crammed as it is with the ravings and manipulations of every nut with a keyboard. Good journalism is structured and structure means responsibility.”

Morley Safer could have spent the last 45 years dining out on his landmark reporting from Vietnam, but he didn’t. He’s a giant in the field and, like most people in our business, I’m not fit to carry his bags.

But he’s wrong about this one.

And I’m going to give him a pass on the really ridiculous thing he’s quoted as saying: “I would trust citizen journalism as much as I would trust citizen surgery.” Let’s just assume that quip was just Safer being glib for the crowd, tossing off a clever line. Let’s credit him with not really equating the skills and training journalism requires with those needed to perform surgery. He must not think citizens can’t do journalism or that journalists aren’t citizens, right?

But the blogosphere is absolutely an alternative to newspapers. Or at least it can be. Or at least I think it can be. I only think so rather than knowing so because I don’t know what the blogosphere is, and I’m guessing Safer doesn’t either.

I count 73 blogs at the New York Times, for example. The guy who writes this one just won a Nobel Prize and was a finalist for a Pulitzer, neither of which they just hand out to random bloggers. Is Paul Krugman part of the “blogosphere” that’s “no alternative” to print newspapers?

A blog is a format. That’s all it is. It’s a way to organize words. The words themselves can be brilliant shining diamonds or they can be a load of cow patties. There’s no reason why the universe of online writers can’t perform the same functions the universe of newspaper writers has.

It’s simply a matter of someone coming up with a business model that works. I believe some people are going to do that. I also believe those people aren’t going to be journalists, they’re going to be business people. Which is why it’s funny that everybody’s having all these panel discussions about what the future of journalism is going to be and filling the panel with journalists.

We don’t know. We just do our thing. Other people figure out how to make a business out of it. A journalist didn’t invent the linotype machine, you know. Or the TV camera, for that matter.

“Good journalism is structured and structure means responsibility,” Safer said. I’m not sure what he meant by that. I would guess he’s talking about the structure of editorial oversight at newspapers, the editors who vet reporters and help shape their beats and their copy.

Again, there’s no reason that couldn’t happen at online-only publications. It happens now. But even if we’re talking about the blogosphere as Safer envisions it — you will now picture a basement and a lone figure in his underwear, typing — there is responsibility.

The bloggers who write well, tell the truth and have important things to say find an audience, and a large, engaged, intelligent readership is a better and tougher editor than the best, toughest editor who ever edited.

Sure, the Internet turns everybody into a publisher and that makes us all subject to “the ravings and manipulations of every nut with a keyboard,” in Safer’s words.

It’s called freedom of speech. Safer might want to take a gander at that First Amendment the award he just picked up was named after. It gets a mention. Safer’s a standard-bearer for a profession that champions freedom of speech. It’s strange to see it bother him so when other people get to use it.

“Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one,” goes A.J. Liebling’s famous quote. That’s no longer true. That’s a good thing.

The blogosphere is no more tainted by the ravings and manipulations of every nut with a keyboard than public speaking is tainted by the ravings and manipulations of every wingnut with a loud voice. We don’t discount what Martin Luther King Jr. said just because some dude got in front of a microphone in Connecticut one day and said journalists are like surgeons.

The public square has given us all manner of crackpots for hundreds of years. It also gave us Lincoln.