Don’t make friends with the band

What is a blogger? Truthfully, I’m not sure I know. Some blogs are stream-of-conscious rants about deeply personal issues. Others are carefully researched articles that put mainstream journalism to shame.

But one thing I do know about bloggers, they aren’t supposed to party with the people they critique.

There is a speech in a movie called “Almost Famous” that captures this thought. An experienced rock and roll reporter is giving advice to a newcomer:

Lester Bangs: You CANNOT make friends with the rock stars. That’s what’s important. If you’re a rock journalist – first, you will never get paid much. But you will get free records from the record company. And they’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, they’ll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs… I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.

Recently, the federal government held a private meeting with selected members of the media and flublogia. The stated purpose was “to prepare for some possible communications challenges” associated with the ongoing pandemic. Here’s the thing: many members of the public who participate in flu forums and read flu blogs are furious that supposedly independent bloggers went to this event and agreed not to talk about it. For many in this community, those bloggers who agreed are “burned”, ie, identified with the government. They have lost credibility and will not get it back. Second, people who were suspicious of the government before are even more suspicious now. It is not enough that the mainstream media kowtow to politicians, they are now reaching into the blogosphere to “turn” the last vestige of free reporting into yet another wing of their PR campaign.

Government attempts to control the media are understandable. From the government’s point of view, journalists just make their job harder. Things are so much easier  if the press get their notes directly from the government. The thing is, a free press is a critical feedback mechanism the prevents wrong policy from being implemented without challenge. Remove this feedback, and there is no limit to the damage that can be done. There are many examples of disasters that occurred in the US when journalists did not do their jobs, some of them quite recent. A pandemic is exactly the wrong time to shut off external critiques, imo.

One good thing has come out of this conference. We have three new flu blogs today (see my blogroll), born out of outrage at government attempts to control the blogosphere. I’m glad to have fellow flu bloggers who have a bit of daylight between themselves and the government PR office.

I have one bit of advice to them:

Don’t make friends with the band.

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