Monday, January 02, 2006

Some thoughts on blogging ...

I have been blogging for nearly a year. So I thought I’d opine a bit on the subject. First, something general:

Relations between blogs and the MSM remain tense, as these links from Glenn Reynolds and Roger Simon clearly indicate. I have myself heard in the newsroom comments about blogs that actually did sound, in Michelle Malkin’s phrase, “thoroughly unhinged.”
But it really isn’t blogging in general that bothers the MSM. It’s only the political blogs. The MSM doesn’t care about lit blogs or cooking blogs or knitting blogs — or even tech blogs or science blogs (except to the extent they might be useful in advancing some editorial viewpoint).
Blogs have challenged the MSM’s self-designated right to shape political debate by choosing what to cover and how to cover it. The MSM claims it has resources not available to bloggers — and it does. So how explain the disparity between what was reported in the papers and on TV during Hurricane Katrina and what we have since determined was actually the case? This was, after all, the demonstration case for the superiority of the MSM.
Amanda Bennett, editor of The Inquirer, wrote a column that ran on Christmas about surveys of our readers’ likes and dislikes. The finding I thought most interesting was this: “More than half our readers weren't even aware that we had endorsed a presidential candidate!” This really seems remarkable, considering that we had gone to the trouble of endorsing John Kerry for 21 straight days.
But maybe not. Lots of people may go into journalism because they’re interested in politics, but it doesn’t follow from that the people who read newspapers share that interest. A good many do, of course — and they are precisely the ones likely to read blogs as well and to blog themselves.
I suspect that the MSM’s role in shaping political debate is going to steadily decline. There will be plenty for it to cover. But from now on the agenda, increasingly, is going to be set by others. The blogs are here to stay. Political debate now takes place in an electronic agora. Get used to it.
But it’s the rest of the readers that interest me, the people who didn’t even know we had endorsed a candidate for president. Now if you think the be-all and end-all of existence is politics, then you will probably dismiss such people as boobs. I suspect they’re people who have better things to do than be preoccupied day in and day out by matters over which the only control they have involves entering a booth and casting a vote every now and again.
Reporters and editors ought to start visiting the rest of the blogosphere. It might give them some idea of what that large chunk of readers uninterested in the editorial board’s orotund pronouncements really is interested in. Plenty of potential stories there. Plenty of potential readers, too.


  1. What I like about blogs is that they tend to pose the sort of edgy, impudent questions that the MSM have abandoned asking, though they sometimes did in eras past. For instance, if I were a blogger I would ask Farris Hassan, the 16-year-old from an upper-upscale neighborhood of Fort Lauderdale who set off to Baghdad on his own and caused quite an (unwarranted) stir: If you wanted to see how conditions were in Iraq, why didn't you wait until you were a year older and could obtain your parents' permission to join the U.S. Army? Then you could travel to Iraq freely and at no monetary cost to yourself or your family. Tens of thousands of your fellow high schoolers around the country are doing just that, and no one in the media pays them a bit of attention until they come home in an oblong box. But the MSM, in the paparazzi mode they so shamelessly take on, treated the whole thing as if he had just had a date with Paris Hilton.

  2. The no. 1 disadvantage of the MSM is its increasing datedness. Almost the entire paper is known to me even before it's out of the printing press. That is going to prove its nemesis.

    p.s. Thanks for referring to me, Frank.

  3. I think the problem is that so many journalists have always seen their personal income as coming in two components: salary plus political influence.

    The second part is draining away and there is nothing they can do about it, so they are both downwardly mobile and terminally pissed off about it.

  4. I think many people ignore the editorial side of their paper and read it for arts, sports, business, etc. I told a friend of mine I canceled the LA Times because I couldn't stand the editorial slant any more, and she said "oh, I never read those anyway."

  5. I remember back in 1996 Tom Brokaw was on CNBC, I think, with three other people discussing the hot topic which was Clinton's sex scandal and someone said something along the line "Since Matt Drudge and the internet blah, blah, blah" at that point old Tom started jostling around in his chair and saying "Matt Drudge! Internet!". He reminded me of Phil Hartman playing Frankenstein on SNL. He realised what a boob his was being and settled down. At that time I had no doubt that he was upset with Matt Drudge and the internet because it usurped his ability to control what people knew.

    Dan Rather did the same with CNN(before they became a leftwing mouthpiece) after the first Gulf War and also again with C-SPAN for the same reason.

  6. As far as the 16 year old, a better question for the media is why a 16 year old was able to figure out that having your feet on the ground is the only way to get the full scope of information. And that doesnt mean locking yourself up in the Green Zone drinking martinis as the Baghdad Hilton and regurgitating what either the generals tell you or the NYTs did (take your pick). That you can do from Manhattan.
    Is reporting from the streets of Iraq dangerous? Incredibly so. But either you should face up to that danger or abandon pretending you are doing a credible job by hiring local stringers of dubious reliability and motivation. There are still reporters like Kevin Sites willing to pound the pavement in the hotzones, it can be done. The MSM is ruining its own case. Yes it has the resources, but it doesnt use them. Thats what makes the arguments farsicle. You simply (and obviously) get a better picture of Iraq peices together a dozen Iraqi and mil blogs than you do from one green zone shut in with great credentials.

  7. If the MSM wants to find its new "niche," it should focus on doing what it is supposedly paid to do: report facts.

    Leave the commentary to others.

  8. It is not just the political blogs.

  9. On the other hand, some of the whackjobs inhabiting the blogosphere make journalists in the MSM sound stark staring SANE. Media, by the way, is plural, a distinction, if it is made anywhere anymore, is usually only made in the MSM. Ah, they're such effete fops.

  10. An even better question than what percentage of Inki readers did not know about the endorsement is how many readers had any doubt about who the paper would be endorsing and how many actually changed their vote as a result of the endorsement? I'd suggest few to none.

  11. It isn't only the political blogs - sportswriters have the same loathing for baseball blogs, for many of the same reasons, although that debate goes back two decades now, so it's less a blog thing than an insider/outsider thing.

  12. Some devil's advocate observations about blogs and bloggers from one who admittedly doesn't blog and only occasionally reads them:
    1) How does one become better informed by reading the "reporting" of a blogger operating in many cases out of his or her basement or spare bedroom than by reading the actual reporting of reporters for the regular print or electronic press who are right there on the ground where things are happening?
    2) I'm beginning to suspect that people don't resort to blogs in order to learn the "truth" but to have their views confirmed, which is to say it sounds little different from watching exclusively Fox "News" or reading only your pet columnist, whether of the left or right. I frankly do not believe people who claim to keep themselves well informed by reading a variety of bloggers -- any more than I believed people who used to claim they read five or six newspapers a day.
    3) Are the opinions of syndicated columnists or TV talking heads necessarily any worse or less incisive or less insightful or less honest than those made bloggers slogging away in the pure, sweet, uncorrupted air of blogdom simply because they are made by people in the vast Main Stream Media (MSM) conspiracy? Smacks of reverse snobbery to me. After all, unlike a lot of bloggers (as far as I can tell), commentators in the MSM commonly have come by their expertise through years of working in their field. You may call them communist or reactionary -- take your pick -- put you can't say their opinions are not based on solid knowledge.
    4) Why has Main Stream Media become such an term of opprobrium? I thought it was good to be in the mainstream. Whenever someone from the right or left wants to slam someone else from the left or right, they accuse him or her of not being in the mainstream.
    5) What IS the Main Stream Media, anyway? All the big, corporate-owned newspapers and broadcasters? Every one of them? It sounds like a straw man you can define as you want so you can knock it down any way or time you want.
    6) Bloggers do not write terribly well. Few bother to construct a pleasing English sentence. Michelle Malkin is one of the worst offenders, though she may not be the best blogging example since I know she also is a print columnist (which only makes her failing worse). Bloggers seem particularly fond of dangling participles and misusing "like." An over-generalization, I will concede, but I have seen these errors over and over.
    Just wondering.

  13. Dear Frank:

    Excellent post, and I am in agreement. My thought in this post were quite similar to yours. Lucianne made my post one her "Must Reads" yesterday.

  14. Melville,

    Taking your third point first because it is most important:

    After all, unlike a lot of bloggers (as far as I can tell), commentators in the MSM commonly have come by their expertise through years of working in their field. You may call them communist or reactionary -- take your pick -- put you can't say their opinions are not based on solid knowledge.

    I think it's highly unlikely that you have ever been quoted by the media in regard to a field that you know something about. What is truly astonishing to most of us who deal with the media is how unbelievably ignorant they are and how unbelievably bad at listening. I have gotten both press and TV coverage on several occasions for humanitarian work with Kazakh orphans -- press coverage that was entirely favorable and intended to serve as advocacy -- and in every case the reporter has completely butchered the facts. They simply don't know anything about adoption, and so they don't know what's important, and they cut the wrong parts out of the partial's unbelievable. By the same token, if you read lots of military blogs, it takes about twenty minutes to realize that the news media (full of people who never served in the military and who don't even know many people who have) have no real idea what the words they're using mean.

    What journalists know is journalism. What they don't know is everything else, which is to say, all the subjects that they pretend to cover, and all the subjects that are of any interest to anybody other than other journalists.

    Now, #1: that on-the-ground coverage from Hurricane Katrina, with those 10,000 dead and the babies getting raped -- man, that was accurate stuff, wasn't it? Those people had the Real Scoop. After all, they were On The Ground.

    What reporters can do is provide raw facts that are part of a picture. What they are pitifully bad at -- and what the blogosphere is exceptionally good at -- is collating and analyzing the facts. You are severely underestimating the tremendous revolution posed by a simple hyperlink and a few good search engines, which together give the entire world access to primary documents at the speed of a good internet connection. If there are twenty experts in the country capable of spotting a flaw in a news story (like the Rathergate memos), the chances that your typical ignorant reporter will know their names and bother to talk to them before he runs his story, are extremely small. But the odds are quite good that at least one of those experts will see the story and be moved to comment on his blog, "This is bullshit because of X, Y, and Z." Then anybody interested in the subject will promptly start hitting him by Google, and the blogosphere will start linking, and the next thing you know Dan Rather is out of a job. 'Cause it's a helluva lot harder to slide by with sloppy stuff than it used to be; the blogosphere brings subject-matter expertise that can't be matched by J-school graduates and combines it with genuine, implacably relentless diversity of opinions and agenda.

    On your point #2: sure, that's what some people do. That's also the only reason that 90% of the NY Times's remaining subscribers have for continuing to read the Grey Lady's opinion pages. If your skepticism proves anything (highly doubtful), it proves only that you personally would not value a diversity of opinion enough to challenge yourself regularly with competing viewpoints (since if you were willing to do it you would know that there are people willing to do so). It doesn't follow that the rest of us are of equal intellectual indolence.

    On #4, the media in question is lazy, dishonest, unprofessional, and pathologically homogenous, and usefully spoken of collectively. But to refer to them collectively you need some conventional term; and Main Stream Media has the advantage of being deeply satirical. The point, you see, is precisely that the Main Stream Media abandoned the mainstream long ago. The term is used for the same rhetorical effect that one might use in referring constantly to "the Becomingly Humble Mr. Kissinger."

    On point #5: the term usually refers to the self-indulgently liberal wing of the media industry, and more generally to the sloppy, lazy, non-fact-checking print and television media whose culture originated in the pre-internet era and has not yet adjusted to the information revolution. It is the culture that thinks that people will be impressed and think your coverage must be accurate if you fly your blow-dried talking head (whether is name is Anderson or Shepard) down to read consistently inaccurate information from his teleprompter from a New Orleans street instead of from a boring old studio. Since it is meant to refer to a fuzzy-bordered subculture, you can't expect lots of precision in the definition, and therefore you are correct to identify the ease with which it can become a straw bogeyman. Ease is not, however, inevitability, and there do exist bloggers who use the term more or less rigorously.

    As for point #6: try The Sheila Variations, starting with "Waiting in Line."

  15. Melville,

    One other thing -- I do realize that you are trying to compare the people the media trot out as "experts" to bloggers. But the "experts" are selected and given air time by journalism majors who don't really know how to tell real experts from fake; they are cross-examined (to use the term at its loosest) by anchorpersons who don't know what are the important questions; and the cross-examination usually takes five minutes at most. The level of analysis and hostile fact-checking and criticism that goes on in the blogosphere is vastly more demanding. Shoddy commentary can survive much longer on CNN or Fox than it can in the blogosphere, simply because if the comments crowd successfully nails your butt more than a few times, the blog readership goes someplace else (other than people with whom you are cooperating in forming a hermetically sealed echo chamber).

  16. Damn, Ken Pierce, that comment was simply fantastic. Thank you, thank you very much. I'm definitely going to use that.

    And Frank, thank you. I'm going to have to read your blog more often.