Blogging, Red Meat, and Reasoned Debate

In his discussion of the Michelle Malkin-SAW contact information kerfuffle, Dan Riehl makes a point that I wanted to address separately

Still, only faulting Michele isn’t really fair. I believe she’s the most frequently read conservative politics only blogger. Things like that happen for a reason. What it ultimately speaks to is the current state of blogs, blogging and blog readers as a whole.

We can do trash TV one better, be sure and tune in. Unfortunately, as long as the more strident voices are also the most popular on the Left and Right, blogging in general will never amount to much as regards a broader more mainstream readership.

[…]

The problem is that if the alleged debate is always going to be framed with anger and sensationalist pleas to emotion, in the end, you’ll get back the same thing. It’s a food fight all around and ultimately serves no good purpose for politics as a whole. That is, unless one is all about firing up the base at any cost.

Ezra Klein takes a similar tack, albeit from the left, in his post on the issue:

I know I’m not supposed to, but I pity Michelle Malkin. Really, I do. Punditry is a game of incentives, encouragement, luck. You write a hundred articles before striking paydirt with one. That zeitgeisty dispatch activates an eruption of applause and adulation, so you try to repeat it. Soon enough, you’ve got a niche, a style, a persona. The lucky ones, among whom I include myself, find their path opening towards responsible, serious commentary. The sort of articles that allow us to wake up, yawn, look in the mirror, and feel good about what we see. And then there are the unlucky ones, the Michelle Malkins, who achieve acceptance through hatred and venom, and find themselves groping down the darkest path to political success.

[…]

Malkin has created an identity of outrage, she trades in hate because she proved unable to achieve recognition for anything more elevated.

To begin with, I disagree with Klein and Riehl–and, indeed, my co-blogger Steve Verdon–on the nature of Malkin’s blogging style. While I frequently disagree with her, I consider her the best blogger in the game today. She has a unique voice, posts frequently, does original reporting, leads the way on stories several times a week, and has always understood and followed the strange and nuanced ettiquette of the Blogosphere, including frequently linking others.

Klein is right that Malkin has “a niche, a style, a persona” but that doesn’t strike me as a bad thing. Is she, as Riehl charges, “strident”? Sometimes, especially on a few hot button issues that she is especially attuned to, notably the illegal alien/Reconquista/culture debate and terrorism/Islamofascism. While it’s an exaggeration to say, as Dan does in a comment on the earlier thread, “Everything is Moonbat this, unhinged that,” there’s undeniably a lot of that.

It’s also true that those who are hotly ideological and throw red meat out to the partisans, including ridiculing those on the other side, tend to attract a more rabid following that those who treat punditry as an academic colloquy. There is a reason Ann Coulter, Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Al Franken, and others who fit that profile are at the top of the business.

It’s true in the blogosphere as well. To varying degrees, DailyKos, Little Green Footballs, Huffington Post, Eschaton, Crooks and Liars, AMERICAblog, Firedoglake, and Smirking Chimp thrive as controversialists. Their readership consists almost entirely of rabid partisans who agree with the host(s) and people on the other side who follow links (usually to the most rabid and controversial posts) for the purposes of getting angry.

Still, there’s plenty of room at the top for bloggers who take a calmer view. Volokh Conspiracy and Crooked Timber have done quite well by maintaining, for the most part, an intellectual tone, they are rarities among the high traffic sites. While critics might disagree, Glenn Reynolds, Andrew Sullivan, Kevin Drum, and Josh Marshall are generally quite reasonable in their tone. In the middle range of bloggers, say, those getting between 5000 and 10,000 unique visitors a day, there are too many to list, although it would include Klein, this particular post notwithstanding.

Malkin is somewhere in between those groups, depending on the issue. She’s neither part of the lunatic fringe nor likely to win over a lot of people that didn’t basically agree with her to begin with. I suspect, however, that she’s quite content to get the word out about the things that get her juices going every day to 125,000-175,000 readers.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. John Burgess says:

    Sorry, to my ear, Malkin is beyond shrill… way up there in the hypersonics.

    I have to look in from time to time–as I do at Kos, LGF, and others I find painful to read–but I’m much rather spend my time with those you point out as “calmer” or “”quite reasonable”. My ears (and eyes) can take only so much…

  2. legion says:

    I’m with John. The main reason I read this place so much is that the comments are a good back-and-forth, without too much in the way of partisan insult (relatively speaking 🙂

    Seriously James – read through some comment threads here, and then look at the vitriol, shrillness, and sometimes outright hatred in threads at Malkin or LGF. Even on the left, places like Kos and Atrios get unreadably shrill very quickly.

    It’s not just the partisan nature of modern politics, James. It’s the sort of environment the blogger creates, and the sort of crowd the blogger attracts & fosters.

  3. Dave Schuler says:

    I’m glad you wrote this, James, because I’ve been saying much the same thing since the WP �Angry Left� article came out last week. However�

    Every other blog and blogger you note under the �calmer view� characterization has been operating for quite some time�three years or more and, in some cases, much longer. I think we need to ask ourselves would these same blogs and bloggers be able to get the audience they have now under the conditions that prevail now?

    Michelle has been blogging for, what, 18 months? She streamed to the top from a standing start (at least partially on the basis of name recognition). Is it possible to do this in the more mature current phase of the blogosphere without being a bomb-thrower? I don’t believe it.

    I think we’re going to see ever-greater partisanship and an ever-more-agonistic approach to blogging simply as a means of getting heard above the din.

  4. Vnjagvet says:

    The tabloids have a much more sensationalist style (and often a larger readership) than more sober newspapers like NYT, Wapo, WSJ, et al.

    Why can’t the blogosphere have this diversity of styles?

    In this sense, diversity is good, isn’t it?

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t think that shouting matches, tit-for-tat, and games of gotcha are a good thing, Vnjagvet. In transactional analysis there’s a transaction called “Now I’ve Got You, You SOB”. It’s a destructive transaction because it inevitably invites escalation until real harm is done.

  6. D.C. Russell says:

    Malkin strikes me as a partial modern-day successor to Jack Anderson.

    In some ways that’s bad–it is the kind of strident voice that turns many off.

    But on the other hand, it can be very good. Malkin, like Anderson, shines a bright light on many things that our “leaders” (politicians and press) would prefer to keep hidden from us. And as with Anderson, it is the strident voice that garners attention and makes others feel they must respond.

    Controversy is essential to our democracy. The consolidation of media ownership has reduced the variety of voices reoorting facts and expressing opinions in the “mainstream media.’ Among other things, Malkin, Dailykos, and their ilk help make up for the demise of independently owned and edited newspapers and the replacement of yellow journalism by bland, do-not-offend mediocrity.

  7. Tano says:

    Nice thoughtful piece, but I also disagree about Malkin. She is one of the worst of the lot.

    I fear that such stuff is inevitable. There is, as Vnjagvet noted above, a larger reader for the tabloids than for serious journalism, larger audiences for cable TV than PBS or C-Span.

    I do think it is harder for calm thoughtful voices to be heard, but there is a niche for them. I, and many others, are pining for more Volokhs and Marshalls, and we will find them. Niche-marketing – it can work. We will always have Budweiser, but microbrews can fluorish too.

  8. McGehee says:

    Everybody either loves Michelle or hates her.

    Me, they couldn’t care less about.

    Be honest: which of us would you rather be?

  9. legion says:

    Stridency can be a good thing… but one can be strident, perhaps even shrill, without insulting, alienating, and ultimately demonizing those who disagree. Malkin does do that, but she’s hardly the worst of the bunch.

    One of the most disturbing things about political discourse post-911 is the widespread turn to the philosophy of: “If you disagree with me, you’re not just wrong, or even stupid, you’re evil.” That’s a guarranteed path to self-destruction, because groups that truly live by that creed can continue to exist only by having an active enemy to hate. Once the “real” enemy is no longer a threat, they will persecute unthreatening groups. Then they consume themselves in schism.

    Reference the current state of the GOP… the general public (at least as far as the polls go) no longer believes terrorism will destroy the US – there’s steadily decreasing support for the GWOT (or at least the Iraq detour). The Democrats (the usual fall-back bad guys) aren’t organized enough to be turned into a “threat”. So you see the splintering of the formerly-solid GOP base into groups of single-issue fanatics such as security hawks, budget-watchers, social/religious conservatives, etc.

  10. Jimmie says:

    I’m sorry, but I can’t see putting Malkin in the same category as the likes of dKos and AMERICAblog. While she certainly is strident, she is never vulgar or crass. She never threatens the folks about whom she writes with violence. She has never, to my knowledge, intimated that members of the other party are hiring male escorts for their gay romps.

    Yes, she flings around the words “moonbat” and “unhinged” with abandon, but when she does, she also shows *and* tells you why she believes those words apply. You may not agree with her estimation, but you at least get the chance to see what she uses to form her opinion. Then you can disagree out in the open, using the same stuff she does.

    I’d put Malkin on the same “tone” plateau as, say, the Bullmoose from the liberal side. He’s definitely as arch and doesn’t shrink from letting the invective fly when he wishes, but he’s not vulgar, not threatening, and he backs up his name-calling with the reasons why the names apply.