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Jeff Jarvis, On the Inside Blogging Out

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
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.

On television, says MSNBC producer Sharon Newman, Jarvis is a great guest because he's "trying to understand the din out there. He's been able to tap into that voice."

A few weeks ago, Jarvis ran into Michael Powell at an Aspen Institute gathering and told the former FCC chairman he had frequently assailed him online. Jarvis said his proudest moment was when he used his Treo smartphone to blog news of the commission's fine against Stern as he was about to begin choir practice. Powell, he says, "looked at me like I was nuts."

Jarvis, who seems to attend every conference on new media held in the continental United States, differs from many bloggers in that he loves the old media, despite their flaws. He argues that traditional outlets can thrive by embracing this growing army of commentators, which is why he continues to advise big corporations. Not that he's defensive about it: He says he "sold out to The Man" 30 years ago.

As for his own never-ending torrent of online opinion, Jarvis says: "People can choose to read or reject me or call me a bozo."

Just Between Us . . .

For all the hand-wringing about anonymous sources in the wake of the Newsweek/Koran fiasco, a new study says their use is actually on the decline.

Front-page stories in the New York Times and Washington Post cited unnamed sources 30 percent of the time in the first year of Ronald Reagan's presidency, compared to 20 percent in the first year of George W. Bush. The Center for Media and Public Affairs says the proportion of such stories in four regional papers dropped from 24 to 14 percent from 1981 to 2001, and on the network evening newscasts from 16 to 14 percent.

"You don't get credit for naming your sources, just like it's not news when planes don't crash, so when one does it always seems like air travel is unsafe," says center president Robert Lichter.

Post's New Partner

The Washington Post is turning to one of its rivals in an effort to beef up its financial coverage.

Starting Wednesday, The Post will run a couple of stories each day from Wall Street Journal foreign correspondents on an International Business page in a redesigned section. "We both remain fierce competitors on many stories," Post Assistant Managing Editor Jill Dutt told her staff in a memo, "but on the overseas business front, our one foreign business correspondent, Peter Goodman, couldn't possibly compete with the dozens of Journal reporters covering businesses and markets around the globe."

The Journal, which plans to launch a Saturday edition in September, began carrying selected Post articles in its European and Asian editions in 2003. That provided a needed overseas outlet for The Post, which had been stung by the New York Times's decision to force a buyout of its share of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune.

Perversion Watch

The chief spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration was none too pleased with the front-page USA Today story about the development of new X-ray machines that would show "a clear picture of what's under passengers' clothes -- whether weapons or just bare skin."

Mark Hatfield strongly disagrees with the story's assertion that the airport machines will "paint a revealing picture of a person's nude body." So he fired off an e-mail to reporter Thomas Frank with the subject line: "You should work for Larry Flynt."

Dispensing with dry, bureaucratic language, Hatfield wrote: "What a sensational piece of [excrement]." He said the machines had been delayed, "but you choose to mislead your readers with 'bare skin' and 'peer into undergarments.' Shame on you and your perverted editor."

Says Hatfield: "My colorful complaint to him was meant to be constructive." While partly "tongue-in-cheek," he says he was making the point that the agency is dealing with privacy concerns by demanding changes to the machines.

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