Pity the poor old MSM, as the blogosphere does insist on calling them.
Reduced in all their variety to a dismissive trio of initials, the mainstream media are now forced to do business with that self-aggrandizing Internet crusader Julian Assange on the one hand and, on the other, face accusations of hypocrisy when they report on his legal travails, his large personality and his working methods.
"A computer hacker with an inflated sense of his own importance has become the new journalist," the Independent's Middle East correspondent, Robert Fisk, complained to Al Jazeera recently.
Whistle-blowers often have inflated egos and hidden agendas: The contents of manila envelopes are either deadly boring or so explosive that they are extremely tricky to publish - or worse yet, both.
But now the envelope contains thousands of pages and comes with a middleman attached: an agent for the whistleblower, with his own agenda and demands. U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning, the alleged source of the documents, and real hero - if you are looking for one; he took the risk - gets lost in the shuffle, as the always-provocative Assange gets criticized in the media for his ego and his posturing.
But who invented this game of scrums and statements that Assange plays so skillfully, most recently as he emerged from jail Thursday to make defiant statements to a throng of cameras?
The MSM, of course. Can anyone think that the high-minded OpenLeaks - the would-be politically neutral site established by a group of Assange's former colleagues - will have as great an effect as did WikiLeaks without a media-seeking missile leading the charge?
The WikiLeaks episode is the awkward co-dependency of old and new media writ very, very large.
Assange needs the old media. He needs journalists because, despite his claims to something called "scientific journalism," he isn't himself a journalist. His deal to give a handful of carefully selected international publications, including The Guardian, Le Monde and Der Spiegel, advance copies of the documents he would subsequently post on WikiLeaks guaranteed the material an attention that his site's previous postings had never received.
He has used the newspapers' reputation, their need for scoops, and the space on their Internet servers and glossy home pages to get the leaks out there. But most importantly, he has relied on their culling, editing and analyzing to make the leaks matter in a way they hadn't when simply posted as a mass of documents that most of us wouldn't be able to decipher.
But the old media also need Assange; and there, some criticism is warranted. Partly they need him because the wiki model has a viral reach they do not, but also because they haven't been doing the job themselves. Embedded reporters, non-existent weapons of mass destruction - the American press in particular proved too docile and too easily co-opted by government in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
The combination of cutbacks in newsrooms and media convergence into corporate entities with myriad interests other than the news have left the legacy media without the resources, the appetite or the tenacious reporters for the kind of investigative journalism that brought Bob Woodward and Deep Throat together in an underground parking garage. We're short-staffed. When's the press conference?
And it seems no matter how the MSM handles the WikiLeaks torrent, its biases get parsed in the blogosphere. The Guardian has been playing the leaks for all they're worth, reporting on Assange's foibles and legal troubles as even-handedly as possible - while turning the cables into readable stories and providing a search engine on its website that allows readers to comb through the 1,200 published cables.
The New York Times, by comparison, has been cautious, giving the stories less-prominent play and dutifully asking the Pentagon for comment. For its prudence, the Times has found itself being accused by critics of pandering to the U.S. government, which in its turn has been mocked by the European media for its hypocrisy over freedom of expression.
Overstatement aside, you can see the Times's ambivalence about the project: How do you take the guy's stuff without getting caught in his game?
The answer is: You can't. Because, like it or not, it's your game too.