Thursday, September 07, 2006

The fray is a good and bad example.

It has been mismanaged. Seriously mismanaged and neglected. I could generate quite the laundry list. But instead, I'll just point out that Hitchens gets out of his fray what he puts into it. Which is zilch. I'm not sure, but I doubt he's ever posted in it. In fact, it's sooo beneath him, that he went through the extra effort to assign the task of posting to a lackey when the occasion warranted (m=18104625). That said, all the best commentary abandoned his fray when the fray editor(s) decided to ignore it, and instead reward the ad hominem artists.

Even so, I bet that in the days following a Hitchens' piece you could, if you tried, find good substantive criticism in fighting words. But you first have to dissuade yourself (and I'm speaking of Slate here) of the reflexive and convenient belief that the fray is a sewer.

My sense is the internet presents old school journalists and columnists with a real challenge they resent. They took the right classes and college, they made the acquaintance of the right people and they've done their time in the trenches. In short, they feel they've earned their place as members of the media. In the good old days, that would be that. But with the internet, their worth, their due, is being challenged. The collective efforts of a writer and editor(s) simply aren't a match for the thousands of people who now have the power to bring their intellect and expertise to bear in direct relation to a writer's hard work.

There is currently a good example of this. Gregg Easterbrook's latest, In Search of the Cause of Autism sounds reasonable enough to the inexpert ear, but is in fact exceptionally embarrassing if you bother to read the comments made in reply to it in the science fray. There, actual scientists have taken the time to vet Easterbrook's foray into science and have found him not only wanting, but plainly wrong. But that's not just a commentary on Easterbrook, it's a commentary on his editors as well. And that is a commentary on the print journalism model that these professionals are trying to apply to internet journalism. It doesn't work, because no matter how well researched and fact checked a piece, there are going to be experts who know the material eminently better than the writers and editors, and those experts are now empowered to expose these pieces as flawed with a few key strokes and clicks of a mouse.

The long and short of it is what used to be good enough no longer is. Journalists and columnists now have to suffer the scrutiny of the collective intelligence of everyone with a computer, and the best efforts of well established print media writers and editors are being called into question by that collective intelligence. What used to be good enough isn't good enough anymore. And that is the cause of much resentment among those professionals. And that is why the fray here at Slate is not only neglected, but subconsciously sabotaged in such a way that it can be easily dismissed.

Update: If there was ever an article that would benefit from appends, Easterbrook's is it. The fact that there seems to be a new policy of no appends only serves to bolster my case for the besieged mindset that is crippling the editors and writers at Slate.


topazz said...

example of bad: when this was pointed out to the editors to be plagiarism. Pointed out by the original author in a post linked to the article, I might add.

Hmmm. I just went back to that fray to find the post, and its gone.

Since when did they stop doing appends? Seems they only resumed doing them on a regular basis again, just last winter.

JohnMcG said...

I'm not sure it's a policy so much that I think the Fray Editors' priorities read like this:

1. Keep problems from escalating up to us.
2. See #1
3. See #2
4. See #3
5. Don't bill too many hours.
6. See #4
7. If you have time, highlight some good posts.

Slate has, for some reason, decieded not to leverage its first mover advantage (which is pissed away at this point) as an online publication, and is now little more than a jobs program for TNR alumns.

Ender said...

I “pity” the fool who has to edit the fray, is the mindset at Slate. Let’s just say it was leaked to me. Anyway, I think you’re right on a variety of levels, but the Easterbrook article suggests to me that there is a prohibition (new or not, I’m just recently back to reading Slate) on appends. Simply track the fray editor’s (in this case Geoff) activities. He’s been posting plenty this week, and did a thorough job of granting editor’s picks in the science fray (I’m not sure, but I believe multiple visits). So, he’s got the time. Combine that with his post, and he clearly agrees that the article was lacking and what better way to mitigate that deficit than with a few appends? So, I take it as good evidence that appends are off the table at Slate. If I had my wish, we’d have a Breakfast Table on the topic (of the fray/Slate). Jacob and his choice of Slatester, Geoff as referee, vs. me and my fray buddies. Something tells me exposing the logic that governs their relationship/view of the fray could use a little daylight.

JohnMcG said...

You might be right, and it might dovetail with my vision of the editor's job.

I don't think is true for Easterbrook given the, "I'm just spitballin' here" tone of his articles, but let's take Hitchens.

He writes his weekly polemics, and presumably Slate pays him handsomely for doing so.

If each polemic were to be accompanied by two or three posts from the Fray pointing out Hitchens's inconsistencies, leaps in logic, and factual errors, what do you think would happen?

Hitchens or his entourage would complain to Slate management, and it would be a big headache. So, no appends.

Now, I think this is stupid. I think Slate is uniquely positioned to have an interactive forum; it is not uniquely positioned to feature writers like Hitchens who can't take criticism. But that seems to be the choice they've made.