Friday, June 17, 2005

It's A Times Problem, Not An Archbishop Problem

Now this is why I love the blogosphere, and why the MSM simply can't compete, except as a source of raw material for the sphere.

I'm leaving my previous post up, sort of as an object lesson. It was my initial reaction to the Times article, which I think can be summed up as, "If the Times draws an accurate picture, then the Archbishop is a moron...but there's a good chance the Times didn't draw an accurate picture, because the Times is the Times, after all."

Then Marcus at Harry's Place posted a link to the full text of the Archbishop's actual lecture. So I went and read it. And I have to say that the Times's coverage is, to put it bluntly, crapola.

Here's how the Times article opens:

Archbishop hits out at web-based media 'nonsense'

By Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent

THE Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has criticised the new web-based media for “paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry”. He described the atmosphere on the world wide web as a free-for-all that was “close to that of unpoliced conversation”.

In a lecture to media professionals, politicians and church leaders at Lambeth Palace in London last night, Dr Williams wondered whether a balance could be struck between the professionalism of the classical media and the relative disorder of online communication.

Dr Williams also extended his wide-ranging critique of journalistic practice to the traditional media...


From this, it is impossible not to infer that:

1. The primary point of the Archbishop's speech was to discuss on-line media, and at one point he went on a digression concerning the traditional media (he "extended his critique" "to the traditional media").

2. The Archbishop considers the classical media to be relatively professional (a good thing) and the online media to be relatively disordered (a bad thing).

3. The Archbishop's statements about the online media were predominantly critical.

But when we look at the actual speech, we find that all of these deliberately-created impressions (if they weren't deliberate, then Ruth Gledhill, Religion Correspondent is a particularly incompetent writer) are, to put it bluntly, lies. Taking each in turn:

1. Impression: The primary point of the Archbishop's speech was to discuss on-line media, and at one point he went on a digression concerning the traditional media (he "extended his critique" "to the traditional media").

Fact: The speech is a thirty-four paragraph lecture, and its topic is the mainstream media, not online communication. (I might add that Religion Correspondents such as Ruth Gledhill are singled out by the Archbishop as being particularly bad at covering their subject matter accurately, which criticism Ms. Gledhill obligingly does her best to confirm.) Online media are brought in only as a way to highlight, by contrast, characteristics of the traditional media. The comments concerning the online media cover about a paragraph and a half, and they show up about halfway through the lecture. Here is everything Williams had to say about the online media:

The drift in some quarters to near-monopolistic practices, the control of the product by careful monitoring of response and periodic re-designing - these evaporate when we turn to internet journalism. Ian Hargreaves, in his excellent Journalism: Truth or Dare, gives a sharp account of the difference made by these developments; surely this is the context in which genuinely unpalatable truths can still be told, 'unsullied by the preoccupations of the mainstream media' (p.259)?

Yes and no. Unwelcome truth and necessary and prompt rebuttal are characteristic of the web-based media. So are paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry. The atmosphere is close to that of unpoliced conversation - which tends to suggest that the very idea of an appropriate professionalism for journalists begins to dissolve. Many traditional newspapers and broadcasters now offer online versions of their product and many have allowed interactive elements to come into their regular material, for example by printing debates conducted on the web. But they have not thereby abandoned the claims of professional privilege.


Note that most even of that second paragraph concerns the online media only insofar as the traditional media has tried to use the online media as a way to have its cake and eat it too. As I said, this speech is about the traditional media, not the blogosphere.

2. Impression: The Archbishop considers the classical media to be relatively professional (a good thing) and the online media to be relatively disordered (a bad thing).

Fact: The Archbishop thinks that the professionalism of the classical media is direly deficient, thinks that the online media has strengths and weaknesses, and thinks that the classical media is tempted to exploit the online media's possibilities while still posing as above the fray. At least I think that's what he's trying to say...again, the comments about the online media were merely a quick digression and weren't explored in any detail at all.

3. The Archbishop's statements about the online media were predominantly critical.

Fact: They were quite balanced. Our Religion Correspondent has as raw material a speech in which a speaker says, "Yes and no. Unwelcome truth and necessary and prompt rebuttal are characteristic of the web-based media. So are paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry." She reports it as, "The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has criticised the new web-based media for 'paranoid fantasy, self-indulgent nonsense and dangerous bigotry'." It's hard to get more shameless in your special pleading than that.

The actual speech is a very interesting and reasonably well-thought out speech, with most of which I agree. The Archbishop does occasionally wander off into the mushy, largely meaningless politico-speech of the professional academic, but most of the time he's actually managing to speak clearly, reasonably concisely, and reasonably...well, reasonably.

So, taken all in all, I have to say that I'd rather have Rowan Williams as my Archbishop than the Times as my newspaper.

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