Is it fitting or ironic that most of us saw the great Bissinger/Leitch newspaper bout of 2008 on a cable tv show streamed through a blog discovered by clicking through a metablog? It brings to mind the 1960 Nixon/Kennedy debate. It was the first televised presidential debate. Nixon sweated. Kennedy glowed. As prominently reported, most listening to the debate on the radio thought Nixon had won. While those watching on television saw Kennedy as the victor. And so it was that Bissinger's rants and raves played perfectly into the contagion of the viral video while Leitch could maintain his composure, winking and nodding to the internet-savvy who obviously knew the difference between a comment and a post. Bissinger relied on long quotations, effective only in a read medium.
Bissinger's anger, when edited and shaped for the page, might read salient and convincing. Case in point, the NYT coverage of the segment:
“I think blogs are dedicated to cruelty, they’re dedicated to dishonesty, they’re dedicated to speed,” Bissinger said. He cast a wide net of derision over virtually all blogs as responsible for the dumbing down of society; he arrived with a folder from which he read offensive stuff from Deadspin as if he were an incensed prosecutor, and he used profanity to decry the vulgar sins of blogging.
It was a sad alliance. Costas the screen star and Bissinger the print loyalist. Was it not so long ago that tv clip highlights were pushing next-day write-ups to extinction? Strange times bring strange cred-fellows.
Yet the truly stirring irony came from both Bissinger and Costas' professed newspaper idols: Ernie Pyle, W.C, Heinz and Woodward and Bernstein. To a man, these journalists were not members of the newspaper establishment, but pioneers attempting to push the boundaries of coverage. Pyle famously embedded himself with soldiers in World War II, shunting the traditionally omniscient newsman's voice for the "folksy" tenor of the countryboy soldier. Heinz crusaded for "New Journalism," the young rebels' covenant to pull back the curtain from reporting and place the writer and all his troubled perspective in full view. Woodward and Bernstein made their names not writing on their beat, but doggedly uncovering the Watergate cover-up often deemed too controversial by their managing editors. These news rebels, these print cowboys inspired Bissinger and Costas and Wilbon and Kornheiser's generations. The mythology of the chain-smoking, hung-over newspaper/trouble-maker so defies the establishment ethos that Bissinger et al tout. It has left most of the blogosphere in shock at its transparent contradictions.
And that is a shame. Because the debate is worth having. As odious as Bissinger and Costas' respective styles appear, their message is age-old. It is a generational battle that once seemingly won by the youth will be revived by their sons and daughters. And yet who is the winner? No doubt the blogosphere is here to stay. But so are its discontents. Two and a half decades ago, a battle was waged between Jesse Helms and Robert Maplethorpe. The cultural left leapt to the aid of Maplethorpe and his anal art, Sally Mann and her naked family, and Andres Serrano and his Piss Christ. And who won? Helms would be excoriated in history books. Legislation went no where. Yet, meanwhile, the excesses of Maplethorpe, Serrano, and Mann lost their appeal. The art world grew bored of shock-art and moved on as well. Just so, the excited glee of athlete embarrassments will dull. It will not lose its audience, simply the front page as more professional bloggers will rise to the top.
When Costas said, "the real problem is the tone of gratuitous potshots and mean-spirited abuse," the interesting effect was that most bloggers agreed. I have read few facile calls about freedom of speech and corporate censorship that was so indicative of the Helms/Maplethorpe debates. Instead, this surprisingly moderate young generation argued that the blogosphere is a meritocracy, that the writing is strong, and the writers educated.
One day Will Leitch will reminisce about the cowboy days of the early blogospheres when hard work and talent was rewarded in the Wild West meritocracy of the first years of the blog. And no doubt his heir apparent will mention how much crap was out there and how long it took to load those videos.
And one more note, if you haven't read Bissinger's recent NYT op-ed, it's a real good read.