The “Blog Mob” revisited: On the impact blogs and the Internet have on journalism.
December 23, 2012
For many people blogs have changed how information is accessed. Besides the traditional news outlets, cable news and well funded internet news and opinion ventures (and not so well funded efforts) there thousands of citizen journalists/opinion blogs. Some are collaborative efforts but most are not.
The credibility of the blogger does not guarantee a quality product. Some lawyers who blog produce a fine product. There other lawyers who do not, There are non political types who provide terrific politcal insights and there are political insiders who use the medium to serve their own self serving needs.
Some bloggers have made real contributions. Little Green Footballs was the primary force which confronted CBS and Dan Rather over the Bush military service controversy in what was later to become known as Rathergate. See Bush Documents: Forged. The story was important enough to be of real concern to some in the mainstream media. See NPR Rewrites Rathergate History to Cover Up Fraud.
When the history of the internet and blogs will be written, LGF will certainly merit more than a mention.
That isn’t to say even the better blogs are without fault. One good day at blog does not mean the following day will bring forth equally meritorious results. Agendas, politics and blindly followed ideologies can take worthy efforts and dilute them in same way that happens at other media. Without real editorial supervision opinion can quickly become expressions of dogma.
However,at newspapers and other media outlets there are usually ombudsmen who if necessary, can initiate a correction, apology or even a retraction. There is no independent arbiter at blogs- the author is also tasked with deciding when and whether to make corrections and/or apologies or to issue clarifications. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen often enough.
Blogs are here to stay. Most will be forgotten, some will be remembered and others will become real resources.
Sometime in 2006, freshly graduated from college and newly employed as a junior editor at The Wall Street Journal, I decided it would be a good idea to publish my musings about the Internet. The op-ed quoted Joseph Conrad to the effect that newspapers are “written by fools to be read by imbeciles” and suggested that blogs are the new newspapers. It turns out that people do not like to be called imbeciles, bloggers in general and imbecile bloggers in particular.
The piece, which carried the headline “The Blog Mob,” was a sensation, a controversy, and, finally, a mistake. It is worth recalling not because it has much lasting value—it does not—but partially because the situation surrounding the piece was hilarious and partially because writers who opine on public affairs ought at some point to be held accountable for their positions. They rarely are, not least by themselves. Maybe the rumpus also serves as an education in the new economics of the modern digital era and the ramifying political, cultural, and journalistic transformations wrought by the terabyte and the computer network.
“Blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared creators would like to think,” I wrote of the advent of the Web log, which still then retained some novelty. Bloggers saw themselves as an independent counterweight to the legacy mainstream media, or the MSM—“the lamestream media,” to borrow Sarah Palin’s subsequent neologism. They believed that the establishment had been corrupted by bias and groupthink. In my view, they weren’t doing a particularly good job at replacing the institutions that were supposedly discredited, and they mostly tended to comment on MSM reportage—riding along “like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps,” to recall my characteristic diplomacy.
“The larger problem with blogs,” it seemed to me, “is quality. Most of them are pretty awful. Many, even some with large followings, are downright appalling.” Then I revved up the RPMs:
Every conceivable belief is on the scene, but the collective prose, by and large, is homogeneous: A tone of careless informality prevails; posts oscillate between the uselessly brief and the uselessly logorrheic; complexity and complication are eschewed; the humor is cringe-making, with irony present only in its conspicuous absence; arguments are solipsistic; writers traffic more in pronouncement than persuasion…The ellipses were in the original text.
The tone of “The Blog Mob” virtually guaranteed that bloggers would respond in a way that confirmed my mob thesis, and did they ever, exhibiting a “liberty, equality, fraternity” crowd psychology not out of place on the streets of Paris circa 1794. The op-ed generated thousands of comments and dozens, if not hundreds, of blog posts in response, critiques coming from both the left and right; it soon climbed to the top story on a website called Memeorandum, which tracks online debate. A few readers even sent old-fashioned letters to the Journal.
The first wave of reaction was largely ad hominem. Much was made of my youth and inexperience. Had I, in fact, visited every single site on the Word Wide Web, and if not, why did I think I was qualified to issue such pronouncements? At the same time I was conscripted as a high priest of journalism, an elitist lording it over the insurgent amateurs. Suggestions were tendered as to the autoerotic activities I ought to perform.
Online, an impromptu meeting of the mutual admiration society was convened. The bloggers celebrated their craft and disparaged old-media fossils like the kid just out of college, out of sync with a new generation who just doesn’t get it. A right-leaning blogger who calls himself Ace of Spades wrote that the chief flaw of “The Blog Mob” was that its author “ doesn’t recognize that he himself is a moron, writing moronic pap,” and that was the subtle part. “This guy—a paid assistant editor at the WSJ—is knocking blogs for the one thing MSM staffers have over bloggers: A straight salary and plenty of company-paid time (and support staff!) to put out one or two pieces a week,” Mr. Spades wrote. “In other words, the only real superiority his MSM halfwits have over most bloggers is the fact that they are the MSM, with the benefits and privileges of such.” A liberal blogger awarded me her “Moonbat of the Week” award, whatever that means. And the general consensus was that I was “clinging longingly” to my “buggy whip and rotary phone,” as someone else put it——which is not too wide of the mark, given that by my nature, however unrealistically, I dislike change as a concept and in practice.
Technological change, as I saw it then, was the underwriter of the problem. True, the Internet had bulldozed any meaningful barriers to journalistic entry, helping to undermine quality control. But blogs per se were merely a manifestation of the deeper and more basic character of the Internet itself and its culture of instantaneity. The online world exists in an eternal present tense and valorizes the latest, the hottest, the most cutting-edge things; “insta-” as a prefix is an honorific. Like the car that loses half its value the moment it comes off the lot, digital items are old almost as soon as they are posted. “Instant response, without even a day or delay, impairs rigor,” I wrote. Traditional print organizations like newspapers, and to a lesser extent magazines, already surged ahead at a pretty good clip but their daily or weekly publication schedules provided the time for at least some deliberative baseline. This built-in lag even pertains to radio and the anti-magic of cable news, in that the hosts and guests are most often prepared and improvising off a script. Instantaneity “is also a coagulant for orthodoxies,” I continued. “We rarely encounter sustained or systematic blog thought—instead, panics and manias; endless rehearsings of arguments put forward elsewhere; and a tendency to substitute ideology for cognition,” which promotes “mobs and mob behavior.”
The other advantage I believed print enjoyed over online media was its “major institutional culture” of editors and critics to screen for “originality, expertise, and seriousness,” against which the laissez-faire norms and practices of the Internet were inferior. This assertion seemed to stick most in the rightward craw, due to the MSM’s well-documented unfairness to conservative causes, beliefs, and themes behind a veneer of accuracy and disinterest. I introduced a note of caution: “In their frustration with the ancien régime, conservatives quite eagerly traded for an enlarged discourse. In the process they created a counterestablishment, one that has adopted the same reductive habits they used to complain about. The quarrel over one discrete set of the standards did a lot to pull down the very idea of standards.”
The conservative talk show host Hugh Hewitt was especially displeased and invited me on his radio program to discuss. I did not acquit myself well, to describe the exchange with some understatement. The hour or so of cross-examination was an intellectual vivisection and revealed that I had reflected less about how terrible blogs are than he had about how awesome they are.
Mr. Hewitt argued that there was no “quality difference between the best of the blogs and the best of the mainstream media,” and actually “the best of the blogs do a better job than the best of the mainstream media, because the mainstream media is generally not educated enough to tackle complex issues such as, for example, Supreme Court nominations, court decisions, porkbusting details, or technology advances or whatever the expertise might be.” Once you include “mainstream media agenda journalism and bias,” blogs are “obviously” superior to newspapers, he said…