Lord of the Blogs
Kathleen Parker thinks the world is going to Hell in a handbasket because of “bloggies” who are “the less visible, insidious enemies of decency, humanity and civility – the angry offspring of narcissism’s quickie marriage to instant gratification.”
There’s something frankly creepy about the explosion we now call the Blogosphere – the big-bang “electroniverse” where recently wired squatters set up new camps each day. As I write, the number of “blogs” (Web logs) and “bloggers”(those who blog) is estimated in the tens of millions worldwide. Although I’ve been a blog fan since the beginning, and have written favorably about the value added to journalism and public knowledge thanks to the new “citizen journalist,” I’m also wary of power untempered by restraint and accountability.
Say what you will about the so-called mainstream media, but no industry agonizes more about how to improve its product, police its own members and better serve its communities. Newspapers are filled with carpal-tunneled wretches, overworked and underpaid, who suffer near-pathological allegiance to getting it right.
Yet, strangely, they succeed so infrequently. I have literally never attended an event or seen it live on television and then seen it accurately reported.
That a Jayson Blair of The New York Times or a Jack Kelley of USA Today surfaces now and then as a plagiarist or a fabricator ultimately is testament to the high standards tens of thousands of others strive to uphold each day without recognition. Blair and Kelley are infamous, but they’re also gone.
Bloggers persist no matter their contributions or quality, though most would have little to occupy their time were the mainstream media to disappear tomorrow. Some bloggers do their own reporting, but most rely on mainstream reporters to do the heavy lifting. Some bloggers also offer superb commentary, but most babble, buzz and blurt like caffeinated adolescents competing for the Ritalin generation’s inevitable senior superlative: Most Obsessive-Compulsive.
The juxtaposition of these arguments in such a small space is bizarre. There are, by Parker’s claim, “tens of millions” of bloggers out there. Who are the bloggers of a stature comparable to Blair or Kelley who have been found out to be fabricators?
Sure, bloggers “persist” regardless of quality. Since all one needs to do to earn the title “blogger” is start a site, that’s not surprising. But her concern is, presumably, power, especially “power untempered by restraint and accountability.” Lousy bloggers are, with few exceptions, consigned to readership in the dozens.
Yes, most bloggers are commentators, not reporters. We don’t pretend otherwise. Reporters, after all, are paid to report. Most bloggers have day jobs. What has that to do with the lack of constraint on powerful bloggers? Further, most reporters seem to aspire to become opinion writers and television talking heads.
I also agree that most bloggers aren’t very good. Again, though, most bloggers are unread–including some very talented ones who either don’t post with sufficient frequency or focus on a niche of such a narrow appeal as to be unable to build an audience. But that’s true of mainstream reporters and pundits as well. Bloggers are, in essence, freelance writers. While there may be tens of millions of us, only a few hundred are “selling” pieces on a regular basis.
Anyone who has read a small local paper or watched small market local television or listened to almost any local radio station can attest that most reporters are less than stellar. As with the mainstream press, bloggers with talent tend to rise to greater prominence. In the case of the former, that means getting hired by a major metropolitan or national publication such as the NYT or WaPo, getting a national syndication deal, or getting picked up by one of the networks.
Even so, they hold the same megaphone as the adults and enjoy perceived credibility owing to membership in the larger world of blog grown-ups. These effete and often clever baby “bloggies” are rich in time and toys, but bereft of adult supervision. Spoiled and undisciplined, they have grabbed the mike and seized the stage, a privilege granted not by years in the trenches, but by virtue of a three-pronged plug and the miracle of WiFi.
This string of ad hominem invective apparently made it past the adult supervisors. Again, though, it’s wrongheaded. Bloggers don’t “hold the same megaphone” as prominent journalists. Even the most successful bloggers (what a “bloggie” is, I haven’t a clue) such as Glenn Reynolds and Markos Moulitsas Zuniga still have a fraction of the power of the major papers or broadcast networks. Even the most famous case of blogger power, the RatherGate scandal, only happened after the mainstream press focused their attention on the pick and shovel work done by bloggers.
And why the name calling? That doesn’t go along with the idea that “professionals,” unlike the great unwashed “bloggies,” are civilized.
Effete? In comparison with professional journalists?
Rich in time and toys? Most of us have full time jobs and do our writing on the side.
Grabbed the mike and seized the stage? A privilege granted not by years in the trenches? Such envy is quite odd coming from someone who has had the stage of a nationally syndicated column since her early 30s.
Furthermore, most bloggers who have any influence at all have achieved some degree of success outside the field of persuasive writing before joining the blogosphere. Virtually everyone at the top rungs of the Ecosystem has a law degree (Reynolds, all three Power Liners, Moulitsas, most Volokhers, Hugh Hewitt), a Ph.D. (Josh Marshall, Duncan “Atrios” Black, Andrew Sullivan, the rest of the Volokhers), success in the business/tech world (Charles Johnson, Ed Morrissey, Kevin Aylward), military experience (Moulitsas again, Greyhawk), or is an established journalist (Michelle Malkin, Marshall again, Sullivan again).
Indeed, it is the ability to bring genuine expertise from the “real world” that has made many of these people successful in the blogosphere. They add insight and information that even the best journalists can’t be expected to have, simply by virtue of having chosen a different profession.
They play tag team with hyperlinks (“I’ll say you’re important if you’ll say I’m important) and shriek “Gotcha!” when they catch some weary wage earner in a mistake or oversight. Plenty smart but lacking in wisdom, they possess the power of a forum, but neither the maturity nor humility that years of experience impose.
There’s no doubt that this is true of a lot of bloggers. It’s true, too, of a lot of reporters. After all, young reporters are immature, too. Many old ones lack humility. But in blogging and reporting, the best tend to rise to the top.
Each time I wander into blogdom, I’m reminded of the savage children stranded on an island in William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.” Without adult supervision, they organize themselves into rival tribes, learn to hunt and kill, and eventually become murderous barbarians in the absence of a civilizing structure.
What Golding demonstrated – and what we’re witnessing as the Blogosphere’s offspring multiply – is that people tend to abuse power when it is unearned and will bring down others to enhance themselves. Likewise, many bloggers seek the destruction of others for their own self-aggrandizement. When a mainstream journalist stumbles, they pile on like so many savages, hoisting his or her head on a bloody stick as Golding’s children did the fly-covered head of a butchered sow.
Again, someone with much more power than all but the best bloggers–and Parker is not among the most powerful syndicated columnists–casts wide aspersions on “tens of millions” of people based on a handful of (unspecified) incidents.
Schadenfreude – pleasure in others’ misfortunes – has become the new barbarity on an island called Blog. When someone trips, whether Dan Rather or Eason Jordan or Judith Miller, bloggers are the bloodthirsty masses slavering for a public flogging. Incivility is their weapon and humanity their victim.
Trips?! Dan Rather tried to influence a presidential election with a completely fabricated story that he spent months on. It took bloggers a few hours to uncover the truth. Rather had far more power than all the bloggers put together. And certainly less “humility.” Even after his lies were revealed, he was still allowed to keep his anchor chair for months and retire at his own leisure. And he still has a high paying job with the network as a “professional journalist.”
Judith Miller is a criminal who is getting rich from her misdeeds. It took bloggers much less time to come around to the conclusion that she was an embarrasment to the journalistic profession than it took her adult supervisors.
Eason Jordan had zero judgment, repeatedly made slanderous charges without evidence, and yet rose to become the adult supervisor of the flagship network in cable news. I’m not sure he’s someone one should bring up when defending the virtues of the mainstream press vice the blogosphere.
I mean no disrespect to the many brilliant people out there – professors, lawyers, doctors, philosophers, scientists and other journalists who also happen to blog. Again, they know who they are. But we should beware and resist the rest of the ego-gratifying rabble who contribute only snark, sass and destruction.
We can’t silence them, but for civilization’s sake – and the integrity of information by which we all live or die – we can and should ignore them.
And “we” do. By any measure, the most influential bloggers are precisely the former. With the exception of humor blogs like Scrappleface and IMAO, the only widely read and cited “snark, sass and destruction” site that I can think of is Wonkette. That, ironically, is a site written by a career journalist, financed by a media empire, and incessantly cited by mainstream journos as the archtypical blog.
Update: Steven Taylor offers more commentary on the Parker piece, including this point:
Are there annoying, vicious bloggers? Oh, yes. Of course, in some cases, the venom is in the eye of the partisan. Of course, there are some pretty obnoxious TV pundit and talk radio hosts. Kos says some pretty mean, obnoxious things about his partisan foes, but then again, so do folks like Al Franken and Rush Limbaugh. WhatÃ¢€™s the difference, aside from the medium in which the the statement are being made?
The same is true of Ann Coulter, Ted Rall, and others who have made careers in the print world, too.
Update (12/29): Welcome Eschaton readers!
Update (12/31): LaShawn Barber got an email from Kathleen Parker after her own post on the matter. She says, in part,
Hey, IÃ¢€™m the one whoÃ¢€™s been complaining about media bias the past 20 years – mostly alone, I might add. ItÃ¢€™s a wonder IÃ¢€™ve survived in my own industry. I figured as often as I have praised blogs and eaten my own, I had earned the right to point out flaws in the blogosphere.
Is she kidding? Alone in complaining about media bias? It’s a virtual national pastime.
And one doesn’t have to earn a right to point out flaws in the blogosphere. It’s one’s birthright as an American. To be taken seriously, however, requires making substantive points rather than broad brush ad hominem rants.
Correction: The original referred to Kos’ Markos Moulitsas Zuniga repeatedly as “Zuniga” rather than “Moulitsas.”