On blogging

You may have heard the rumors. David Brancaccio’s NOW is coming to town to do a story on the Montana blogs and Jon Tester. Good times. I’m sure I’ll let you know what, when, where, and if a show is airing. In the meantime, I’ve been thinking about blogging, what it is, what it means. Where it’s going.

So here’s my latest thoughts. Warning, it’s a looooong post. I’ve divvied it up a tad, but get that cup of coffee you were thinking about and settle in…

“Fast-moving, densely cross-referential pamphleteering”

Naturally as a blogger I believe in the power of my medium. Blogs are cool. Blogs can bring to life stories that would otherwise be ignored. Blogs can make a difference in a close political race, supplying the buzz and cash needed to edge a candidate over the top. Blogs allow regular folks (not me, I’m an ideological slave to myself) to air their opinions. And it’s quite exciting when the blogs align in common cause.

Bloggers are not journalists.

Oh sure, every once in a while we can do a bit of journalism, but who has the time and money to dedicate to investigation, digging up sources, fact checking, the everyday footwork required of good reportage? There’s a reason professional journalists don’t have the same output as bloggers – I can write up to ten posts a day, if pushed. A good journalist will sometimes work on a story for weeks or months. That professional journalist is busy supplying the evidence necessary to the story. (I write what my ideological overlords dictate.)

Instead blogs are twenty-first century version of the penny presses of the early 1800s or the pamphlets of the Colonial era. Ironic, shrill, dramatic, and varied quality, yet full of energy and creativity. Influential, but hard to say how exactly.

In “Amateur Hour,” Nicholas Lemann agrees:

An interesting new book about this came out last year in Britain under the daunting title “Representation and Misrepresentation in Later Stuart Britain: Partisanship and Political Culture.” It is set in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and although its author, Mark Knights…does not make explicit comparisons to the present, it seems obvious that such comparisons are on his mind.

The “new media” of later Stuart Britain were pamphlets and periodicals, made possible not only by the advent of the printing press but by the relaxation of government censorship and licensing regimes, by political unrest, and by urbanization….These voices entered a public conversation that had been narrowly restricted, mainly to holders of official positions in church and state. They were the bloggers and citizen journalists of their day, and their influence was far greater (though their audiences were far smaller) than what anybody on the Internet has yet achieved.

The whole article was conceived as a snub, a rebuttal of sorts to Glenn Reynolds who claimed that traditional media was headed the way of dinosaurs to be replaced by people-driven media. The blogs.

Lemann disagrees. He brushes aside the idea that journalists are “elites” or “gatekeepers,” busy protecting their turf from upstart amateurs, a queer sort of conclusion from anybody who have seen the recent and shrill denunciation of bloggers as “extremists” pulling the Democratic party into radical territory. (That’s character assassination and blatantly untrue.) Journalists – especially the big name pundits – are resentful of the blogs’ mysterious hold over the public. And stories are suppressed by traditional media.

The false assumption here is that bloggers could and should be working to replace traditional media. That won’t happen – not because, as Lemann claims, blogger output isn’t better at journalism than journalists (true) or that blogger coverage of neglected news is hyperlocal and dull (odd and false) – but because blogs don’t want to recreate what journalists do. They are creating something new, filling a hole that journalism fails to address.

“Say what you think”

I take my cue from dean of Berkeley’s journalism school Orville Schell’s interview on NOW (yes, a shameless plug), in which he warns of the corrupting influence of corporate money on journalism:

SCHELL:…the media is supported by advertising…and even public broadcasting is more and more reliant upon…corporate sponsors…. [These] commercial driven imperatives…I think are…more and more making us timid, cautious, incapable of standing up to criticisms against us, because we…fear our livelihood, our air hose will be cut off.

BRANCACCIO: So, I hear you saying that this is not just an apparent conflict of interest, the fact that journalists may report to a corporate master, who have business reasons for doing what they do, but you’re saying it actually may be affecting the journalism, worrying about the business model?

SCHELL: I think we’re in a very grave crisis where the credibility…of the press is at stake, where…people perceive journalists as being somehow disingenuous or having some private interests, or being biased.

[W]e…do now in…America live in the most market driven society that human history has ever witnessed, and it’s affected every aspect of our lives. And, it makes notions of independen[ce] quite quaint…

…whether you’re a journalist or a…Dean at a university…we…are out on the corner with our tin cup as mendicants. And, we, too, are forced to…beg for corporate sponsors. And, I mean, this is part of…life that has crept up like a silently rising tide around all of us. And, nowhere do I think…the effects have been more profound than in the media.

I’m not a complete alarmist. I think in times of peace and stability this subservience of the press to corporate interests is at worst problematic. And sometimes a corporate-driven model can create entertaining and informative information. H*ll, there are 24-hour news channels!

But in times of crisis – like the crisis we’re currently facing, not with terrorism, but with our own government’s encroachments into our civil liberties, the rule of law, and the very fabric of the Constitution – the media plays cautiously and fails us.

Schell and Brancaccio discuss the recent administration attacks on the New York Times, and it effects. Schell claims the attacks have had a definite effect, similar to the way the press is cowed by the government in China, which attacks a dissenting reporter’s patriotism and loyalty. Schell:

You know, again, in China I’ve had a lot of experience with this, and I know what happens when people become fearful, …because normally any human being, not just a reporter, would like to be considered a constructive, positive, patriotic citizen. And, they actually believe that their reporting is a manifestation of that. But, when something as powerful as the State, or a President, says that they’re actually seditious, insubordinate and aiding and abetting terrorism, unpatriotic, I mean, this has a tremendously undermining effects. And…of course this also makes corporations get weak knees when it comes to supporting this critical sort of extra-governmental watchdog function…

That’s the bottom line, isn’t it? Corporate interests want newspapers and television media to be as uncontroversial as possible. That’s why a local paper with a liberal readership, for example, prints a shrill attack editorial on the intelligence and patriotism of citizens who are against the Iraq War.

That’s not exactly informing the electorate. That’s pandering to official authoritarian story lines.

BRANCACCIO: Can our democracy flourish given this state of affairs as you see it?

SCHELL: I think our democracy is not flourishing because there is a food chain that goes from information, which we, as reporters, help provide….from information, you go to discussion, you may go to lawsuit, you may go to hearings, you may go to…legislation. Then, you go to action and then you hopefully go to correction. This food chain is broken.

If the information is not coming in…the whole…decision making system of democracy breaks down. And if you have citizens who are incapable of making intelligent decisions…

BRANCACCIO: That’s a lot at stake there, Orville.

SCHELL: Well…you know, I lived low these six decades and…I think that we’ve arrived at a time that if you were truly patriotic, you say what you think.

That’s what blogs do. We’re battling for democracy by doing what journalists won’t: we say what we think.


  1. I’d have to agree. Speaking as an intern for the NY Daily News, I can argue from experience that blogging is much different than actual reporting. When I did work for the news, I had to jot down actual facts, and I had to get all sides of the story (should they exist). You don’t have to do that when you blog. You can be an advocate if you want to, and most are. I’d say blogs are closer to the op-ed columns than to the actual news pages.

    Not that that’s a bad thing…

  2. Very well thought out, insightful, and quite accurate . . . although how you could manage 10 posts in a day amazes me.

  3. Well, they wouldn’t be ten good posts…

  4. Jay,

    First, nice work. Do you find it creepy when journalist report on journalism? Headlines like “Are Journalist Biased?” or “Do We as Journalist use Fear Tactics?” a bit incestuous? Especially when they are followed by a headlines like “50 Ways Terrorist are Trying to Kill You!”, showing that yes they are doing what they accuse themselves of but no, they are not going to stop.

    Not saying that blogging on blogging is a bad thing, it is a media still trying to define itself. Introspection is a good thing. I am just saying that we should be careful not to overdefine ourselves but instead let the results of our efforts define us.

    As you point out, the idea of ‘blogging’ to overcome the ‘establisment’s’ shortcomings is not new. Only the media and instant delivery is new. Our presence serves two important points. We are an outlet that can be purely partisan and does not have to give the appearance of being unbiased so we don’t have to end every argument with “Republican leaders responded that the Democrats are just trying to play politics with the issue. This is a good thing because our stories dont get watered down. New break! They are politicians! Politicians play politics for a living! The second function we offer is to force the MSM to stay on its toes.

  5. Yes, sometimes I’m wary of blogging about blogging. But I think there’s a few differences between me doing it and a journalist.

    First, It’s me doing it. You’re not going to see me claim blogging is one thing, than doing its opposite in the next post. My blog is one voice: mine. I speak for me.

    Second, I don’t claim much high ground for blogs. The only public service we provide is to…well…blog. That’s a lot, of course, but it isn’t a rigid enterprise with proscribed ethical borders. Thus, blogging on blogging fits well within the purpose of blogging, which is whatever we want it to be.

    And third, nobody really understands what blogging means. Where will it go? What effect does it have? It’s not like traditional reporting — which still generates a lot of questions — but whose role is generally understood.

    But I agree. It’s a little weird. But then so am I.

  6. Mark T

    Blogging is about writing and editorializing, and should not be confused with journalism.

    Corporate media should also not be confused with journalism.

    When the government decides to have a war, it’s the corporate press that unfailingly and willingly amplifies the propaganda (including the NY Times – remember Judy Miller?). It all goes back to understanding the role of a free press in a democratic society. It is not to provide information – that happens, but only incidentally. There is something more vital to our survivial going on. The press serves as a buffer between the public and decision makers. We can’t really be leaving important decisions to an ill-educated and unwashed electorate, can we? Corporate media coaxes us into agreement with decisions already made, presenting controversy only within an extremely tight and narrow framework – that small difference between the Democrats and Republicans. Those are our choices, which is why so often it seems as if we have no real choice.

    A corporate-owned media is better controlled by government, as corporations and politicians are closely tied to one another. A truly free media with a thousand organs working in disharmony would pose a threat to government. Blogs are that disharmony, and I do indeed think they have people worried.

  1. 1 Independent splashes bloggers’ faces on cover; panicked citizens riot « 4&20 blackbirds

    […] Heh. Lord knows I’ve written on blogging often enough. And no one really understands its impact yet. So there’s no way in h*ll I’m going to offer any criticism of Adams’ story. It’s as fair assessment as any I’ve seen. […]

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