Jeff Jarvis, On the Inside Blogging Out
Monday, May 30, 2005
He has denounced shoddy journalism, defended whipped-cream-covered strippers on television, discussed the pope on MSNBC, called in to Howard Stern, exchanged erudite letters with the editor of the New York Times, and championed the idea that any citizen can be "a Wolf Blitzer in sheep's clothing."
In the process, he says, he has "rebranded" himself as Blog Boy.
Jeff Jarvis, a former critic for People and TV Guide and a founding editor of Entertainment Weekly, has moved from writing for millions to blogging for thousands, slinging opinions on subjects ranging from the war on terror to car stereos. "God knows how many bits and bytes I've wasted on my blathering," he says.
Jarvis, 50, churns out all manner of commentary on his Web site BuzzMachine.com, operated with help from his 13-year-old son Jake, who has his own blog. MSNBC executives like his punditry so much that they periodically use shaky Webcam video of him from the den of his New Jersey home. "I'm broadcasting to the world with a $99 camera," he says.
Last week, the white-bearded Jarvis quit his job as online czar for Advance Publications. He will be working for the New York Times Co. as editor of the services guide About.com, whose $410 million acquisition Jarvis had questioned. (He says he'll still critique the paper's journalism but not its business decisions.) Jarvis will also be working with a news start-up operation (details still secret) and consulting for City University of New York's new journalism grad school.
Not everyone is a Jarvis fan. He got into a spat with a Daily Kos contributor who called him a conservative. (Jarvis, a Democrat, wrote: "If I'd passed your test, would I have gotten a Liberal License? A Liberal T-Shirt, perhaps? A Liberal Membership Card?") He called a professor who challenged the motives of two Iraqi bloggers "pond scum."
Jarvis made waves last fall when he discovered, through a Freedom of Information Act request, that all but three of the 159 complaints to the Federal Communications Commission over Fox's "Married by America" were duplicates of form letters from the Parents Television Council. Jarvis, who mocked the FCC's $1.2 million fine over the show's strippers and other sexual suggestiveness, shared his findings on Stern's radio show. Jarvis called this "censorship by the tyranny of the few," adding: "The FCC should be ashamed of itself."
L. Brent Bozell, the council's president, says that Jarvis "got lots of national press for something that wasn't true. I'm not saying he was lying, but he should correct it." Bozell says 4,000 of the council's members filed complaints, and the reason they sounded identical is that the FCC requires the attachment of a show transcript, which his group provided. Jarvis says he reported what the commission turned over and that Bozell's figures don't undercut his point about "manufactured outcries."
In February, when Jarvis posted an open letter to Times Editor Bill Keller about the value of blogs, it was a "trick," he says -- "kvetching and moaning" on his part -- and he was "shocked and delighted" when Keller replied in what turned into a lengthy exchange. Keller's response to Jarvis's suggestion that he debate bloggers more frequently: "Easy for you to say, since you seem to live without sleep." Keller wound up pronouncing the online debate "educational and satisfying and a lot more fun than I'd have expected."
A one-time staffer for the Detroit Free Press, Chicago Tribune and San Francisco Examiner, Jarvis says that he became a populist as a TV critic in the 1980s when he defended the shows that people wanted to watch, regardless of what elite opinion said. Initially, he admits, he "didn't get" the appeal of blogging. That changed on September 11, 2001, when Jarvis was at the World Trade Center and, "like a stupid, idiotic journalist, I stayed there to report." He launched the blog that became Buzz Machine and "it soon took over all available life," to the point that "it became a social addiction. To abandon it is to abandon your friends." (Jarvis had 135,000 friends, or unique readers, in March, according to his figures, which include those who sign up for automatic feeds from his site.)
He describes himself these days as "an obnoxious evangelist for the idea that what people have to say has value." In his most grandiloquent formulation, he sees blogs as the rise of a new "citizens' media," in which ordinary folks can not only sound off but report, put up video and otherwise gather information without the imprimatur of big media companies.
"Journalism is impersonal, blogs are personal," he says. "Journalism is dispassionate, blogs are passionate." And if that passion leads some practitioners to ignore facts, float rumors or make mean-spirited attacks, he says readers "have the good sense to be able to judge that." Jarvis can get carried away, though, suggesting that local papers don't need their own film critics, just syndicated ones, and would do better to let average Joes pen the reviews.