The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Everything old is new again in the mainstream media

Linkers and thinkers and déjà vu

The entrance to the building of the New York Times. (iStock)
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See if this sounds familiar: The mainstream media is broken. These gatekeepers are panicked about losing their power because of the emergence of cheap ways for people to communicate directly with interested readers. While big corporate outfits like the New York Times or Fox News are making their biases plain for everyone to see, citizen journalists are able to deconstruct false media narratives and tell it like it is to interested readers.

I am writing, of course, about 2002.

Back in the day, there was the mediasphere and the blogosphere and a whole big debate about what this divide meant. I should know — I was one of those folks who grabbed a Blogger account and started writing because of my difficulties getting an op-ed published. I was not atypical either: Most of the first generation of bloggers that gained followings were either academics writing for a public audience or former columnists and editors experimenting with the blog format.

Despite some recent nostalgia for that just-enough-Internet era, I can recall mainstream media apprehension as well about threats to the marketplace of ideas — and to their raison d’etre. One 2004 New York Times write-up quipped, “never have so many people written so much to be read by so few.” A few years later David Frum complained about the tenor of the blog discourse: “Such criticisms — so personal, so rude, and so imperfectly grammatical — elicit only countervailing scorn from their targets.”

Despite or because of Frum’s assertion, eventually the successful first generation of bloggers went corporate. More established media outlets hired them or bought out their blog. Andrew Sullivan wrote for so many establishment outlets that I honestly cannot remember them all. Others, like Kevin Drum, Matthew Yglesias, Glenn Greenwald and Megan McArdle, found their media platforms as well. I was hired by Foreign Policy and then The Washington Post. Blogs persisted, but claims that they would supplant the mainstream media died down.

In 2021, however, this debate has emerged anew. The New York Times still has its, um, issues — as does Fox News. Substack has replaced Blogger, and many of the names listed in the previous paragraph have flocked to it while hinting/yelling apostasies about corporate media.

Perhaps it is not a coincidence that in the past week there have been two longform pieces critiquing some of the newer entrants into this space. Last week Lyz Lenz critiqued Seth Abramson’s oeuvre of Twitter threads, or what he calls “meta-journalism,” in the Columbia Journalism Review. Lenz is … let’s say unconvinced: “Abramson’s meta-journalism may not actually be journalism: it’s just him sitting at home, tweeting out stories he’s stacked together like a house of cards, without vetting them for accuracy.” Abramson is unhappy with that assessment.

The New York Times also ran a long feature by Cade Metz about a blog called Slate Star Codex that was popular with some Silicon Valley types and has since moved to Substack. There are multiple issues with that story. See the response by that blog’s author, Scott Alexander, as well as commentary from Yglesias and Fredrik deBoer.

The hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts is not going to wade into the nooks and crannies of these contretemps — a lesson learned from doing so way too often 15 years ago. One can understand the perception by some, however, that the mainstream media is targeting independent voices again.

What is striking to me, however, is the degree to which Abramson and Alexander symbolize the blogosphere of yore’s different sides. Back in the day, bloggers could be divided into “linkers” and “thinkers.” Linkers would just post a sentence or two of commentary in response to a linked news story that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. Thinkers would write thousands and thousands of words about something, sometimes making interesting points but often impressing those who confused length with profundity. Abramson is a linker; Alexander is a thinker.

This parallel suggest three conclusions about the current contretemps. First, much like the blogosphere of yore, the notion that any of these new actors will supplant the mainstream media is fanciful. Abramson’s entire shtick is derivative of that very media, as is the case of any other linker. As for the thinkers, they are usually reacting to an emergent media consensus they believe needs tweaking. The symbiosis between alternative thinkers and the New York Times is just as strong now as it was in 2004.

Second, also much like the blogosphere of yore, critiques of the medium are reductionist and confuse the platform with the content. For example, Lenz’s critique of Abramson seems valid. Abramson is not the only person who uses Twitter threads, however. In her story, Lenz cited Virginia Heffernan’s 2017 Politico story listing 10 people who were innovating with Twitter threads. Looking at that list now, I see one other person akin to Abramson. The others include a co-creator of Lawfare, a respected national security commentator, a future undersecretary of defense, and well, me. So maybe the linking is not the problem so much as how and why one links.

Finally, it cannot be stressed enough how much this is an elite phenomenon — including the people claiming to be railing against elites. The old blogosphere had a massively unequal distribution of links and influence. The current reincarnation of these outlets likely displays a power law distribution as well.

The current group is far better at monetizing the attention economy. Good for them. I suspect, however, that none of them will supplant the mainstream media outlets. And I look forward to revisiting this debate again in 2040.