Parasites or pioneers?

On the "polemical excesses" of the blogosphere

The recent experiences of my colleague Mehdi Hasan rather bear out this passage from Michael Massing's very interesting piece about blogging and the future of print journalism in the latest edition of the New York Review of Books:

The polemical excesses for which the blogosphere is known remain real. In And Then There's This, an impressionistic account of the viral culture on the Internet, Bill Wasik describes how "the network of political blogs, through a feedback loop among bloggers and readers," has produced a machine that supplies the reader with "prefiltered information" supporting his or her own views. ... With so many voices clamoring for attention, moreover, a premium is put on the sexy and sensational. Headlines are exaggerated so as to secure clicks and boost traffic. ... [Consequently], the Internet remains a hothouse for rumors, distortions, and fabrications.

But before aggrieved bloggers conclude that Massing, like the rest of what the members of the "online community" call the "mainstream media", is fearful of his job, it's worth pointing out that he recognises the enormous journalistic and democratic potential of the Web:

For all these problems, the Web is currently home to all kinds of intriguing experiments. YouTube recently introduced a Reporters' Center offering tips from established reporters on how to cover international news. The Huffington Post has set up an investigative fund to support journalistic research. The Boston-based GlobalPost has arranged with dozens of independent reporters around the world to find outlets for their work. Sites like Minn Post in Minneapolis and Voice of San Diego are testing whether metro reporting can be done on the Internet. Among the more notable recent developments are the sharply edited book section at The Daily Beast; the brisk video-debate unit Bloggingheads.tv; and the conservative blogging collective NewMajority.com, set up by David Frum after he broke with National Review. Taken together, such initiatives suggest a fundamental change taking place in the world of news.

And Massing makes an extremely acute distinction between the kind of blogging, often perpetrated behind the cloak of anonymity (as was the case with Mehdi Hasan's grotesque monstering by someone calling themselves "Channel Four Insider"), that is parasitic on print journalism, and what you might call blogging by experts. He mentions Juan Cole here, who, as it happens, is currently writing a piece for the New Statesman:

The blogosphere, by contrast, has proven especially attractive to those who, despite having specialized knowledge about a subject, have little access to the nation's Op-Ed pages. The model here is Juan Cole, a Mideast scholar at the University of Michigan whose blog, Informed Comment, has over the years offered a more acute analysis of developments inside Iraq -- and now Iran -- than most of the reporters stationed in those countries. Today, one can find similar commentators on almost any subject. For a physician's personal take on America's health care problems, one can turn to KevinMD, written by Kevin Pho, a primary care doctor in Nashua, New Hampshire. For a fresh perspective on education, there's joannejacobs .com, by a former Knight-Ridder columnist; and on drug policy, there's The Reality-Based Community, by UCLA professor Mark Kleiman.

 

 

 

 

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump