Two of my friends, Julian Sanchez and Conor Friedersdorf, did a BloggingHeads last week about the future of media. It’s a great show in which they make a number of solid points. However, I found myself disagreeing with the argument Conor makes here:
The very fact that a lot of people are seeing it on the front page because the editor decided to see it there because he thought as an insider that it’s important makes the people at the water board kind of sit up and take notice in a way that maybe wouldn’t happen if a blogger broke it. I saw Clay Shirky making the same argument about the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church. An independent paper in Boston broke all of these stories, but no one really took notice until it was on the front page of the Boston Globe. It isn’t just that the story get reported. It’s that there’s a form with enough institutional power that it gets seen by enough people that actors are forced to reform things.
Conor is talking about the story Shirky tells in Chapter 6 of Here Comes Everybody, about the pedophilia accusations against Father Geoghan. Shirky told the same story at this event. The point of Shirky’s story is not that coverage on the front page of the Boston Globe is the key to getting people to sit up and take notice. It was quite the opposite: that by itself, coverage by the Boston Globe didn’t mobilize the kind of strong reaction it takes to prevent future pedophilia cases. We know this because a virtually identical episode occurred in 1992:
There is, eerily, something vanishingly close to a two-slide comparison here. In 1992, a priest named Paul Shanley was pulled in for having raped or molested almost a hundred boys in the Archdiocese of Massachusetts. His bishop was also [Bernard] Cardinal Law, and the group covering it was also The Boston Globe. And they ran 50 stories that year on the priest abuse. And that story went nowhere. It shocked people, people were horrified, they were upset, and then it died out. And in the intervening decade, Geoghan kept after it.
We can’t say that if the web had been in wide circulation in ‘92, that the Stanley case would have created the reaction to Geoghan case. But what we can say is that many of the good effects in limiting the Catholic Church’s ability to continue doing this were a result of the public reuse of the documents in ways that were simply not possible in 1992 and had become not just available, but trivial by 2000.
The key difference was that in 1992, rank and file Catholics had no efficient way to organize themselves outside of the church hierarchy. This gave the church a key strategic advantage, and it allowed them to contain the outrage over any given pedophilia scandal to a single parish or (at worst) metropolitan area. By 2002, widespread access to the Internet meant that it was vastly easier for the laity to quickly create an independent organization with sufficient numbers to pose a real challenge to the church leadership. It tooks just weeks for Voice of the Faithful to assemble online and make themselves into a force the Catholic hierarchy had to reckon with.
It’s understandable that Conor would have missed the point of this particular Clay Shirky story. But I think the reporter-centric view of the political process Conor is articulating here is flawed in ways that go beyond this particular example. To be sure, newspapers are an important part of the political process, and will likely continue to be so for many years to come. But as I’ll explain in my next post, it’s a mistake to view the decline of the newspaper’s top-down reporting model as a blow to democratic accountability. The reality, I think, is something close to the opposite: the Internet is removing a key information bottleneck and making it much easier for ordinary citizens to keep their elected officials accountable.