Monday, September 27, 2004

Memo to People Writing Memos to Bloggers

Long day. Productive day. Good day. But long day. Too tired to dive into one of the complex topics burbling in the back of my mind. So I'm going after an easy target. To wit: Steven Levy's article on MSNBC "Memo to Bloggers: Heal Thyselves."

A little late-night fisking just to soothe the nerves before bed. So let's start pulling out the juicy bits.

"While bloggers have been true to their promise to "fact-check Big Media's a--," their motives are often fiercely partisan."
Three problems with this single statement.

1. There is no "promise" made by "bloggers." There are currently over three million blogs, with as many different personalities behind them. Blogging is not an industry, it is a medium. More like a book than a publishing company. Some bloggers do pride themselves in fact-checking big media. Others are devoted to sharing recipes.

2. The motives of a blog are irrelevant. The medium isn't at risk from partisanship the way the mainstream press is. Call it partisanship - bias - sloppy journalism - whatever. The blogosphere is not built upon trust the way the mainstream media is, so those motives aren't a problem.
There is nothing standing behind a blog akin to the reputation of a traditional publisher, or media enterprise. If something becomes shrill and partisan, or just plain wrong, it will lose all readers who don't like that sort of thing in the blink of an eye. And guess what? Plenty of blogs are out there ready to satisfy them. It's a big world, this blogosphere.

3. The motives of the big media are also often fiercely partisan. This is one of the major drivers to rising popularity of opposing partisanship in the blogosphere.

"Name-calling and intolerance of opposing points of view have reached epidemic levels on Web logs. And when it comes to hammering away on a noisy subject that ultimately distracts from more important issues, the Blogosphere can make cable television look like a 1950s debating society. "

It's not like partisanship is new on the Internet. Any veteran of Usenet flamewars will find Mr. Levy's use of superlatives here amusing. Sure... Internet publishing was all professionalism and/or sweetness and light before blogs. And no one ever said curse words either.

Part of Levy's problem here is that he assumes blogs came as natural extensions of professional journalism. Um... no. They've just started entering that realm. But that's not where they came from. They're natural extensions of the Usenet, electronic bulletin boards, e-mail discussion groups, and Web Forums. And judged on that basis, they're definitely a step toward greater civility because they provide more individual accountability.

"Judging by its dominance in the blog world (I'm talking about the civic sector here, not the countless blogs on other topics or people's personal lives), you'd think that Rathergate was bigger than Watergate, Iraq and Britney's putative wedding combined."
Well let's take those three topics one at a time, shall we?

Iraq is a pretty big topic in the blogosphere, and has been for quite a bit longer than Rathergate. Stating that Rathergate is bigger might very well be true - judging by volume on the topic for a specific two week period. Judging overall? Such a statement is either hyperbole - the sort of thing blogs routinely expose the "responsible" media for engaging in while the other side of their mouth poo-poos bloggers for such irresponsible commentary - or it's humorous exagerration. You make the call.

Britney's wedding? I'm going to go with humor tinged with sneering condescension here.

Watergate? Well let's think about Watergate. In that story low level political operatives were caught in a robbery intended to influence the outcome of an election. Due to diligent members of the media (especially Woodward and Bernstein), the questions never stopped hammering at the issue until the president was forced to resign in associated guilt. Big story, for sure.

What do we know of Rathergate? We know someone tried to use forgeries to tamper with an election. We know at least one producer within one of the major commercial news networks was coordinating the release of the forgeries with the political campaign assumed to benefit from it. We don't know who within either the media organization or the political campaign were in the loop on this. And we don't know who created the forgeries. But unlike Watergate, the media seems bored. Not interested enough to keep asking the questions. The heirs of Woodward and Bernstein want to change the topic to healthcare, the economy, Iraq - anything else! As if the media is only big enough to cover one story at a time.

And this is why people like Levy are proving themselves insufficient to the challenge of the blogosphere. He sees Rathergate and concludes "embarrassment for Rather - move on." If he saw Watergate in the same light, he'd conclude "low level burglary - move on." Thus missing the story entirely. The Levy mindset is that of the fat & happy media publisher who fears no competition. And that mindset is simply not a good channel to get the hard stories (to say nothing of how trustworthy it is to those who don't share its social and political preferrences).

"True, there are indeed constructive, thoughtful Web-log commentators online. But they don't draw crowds like Glenn Reynolds, whose Instapundit site recently peaked at about 445,000 daily page views."
A little begging the question tossed in with an ad hominem. And remember this is the ambassador of the "non-partisan" media who condemned name-calling above. I suppose implying that Professor Reynolds is neither constructive nor thoughtful is supposed to slip past us without us noticing the insult.

Also, note the cowardly cop-out here. He doesn't actually name one of these "constructive, thoughtful Web-log commentators." If he did, the reader would be in a position to see exactly whom Mr. Levy considered to be purveyors of this sort of commentary. And we might even find fault with his choices, which would damage the weight we gave his word. Much like the way the opinion of a blogger making such a comment is turned under the miscroscope by a thousand other bloggers. I call it out to note how much lower the standard for Levy making such a contention is than that of the average decently trafficked blog.
"During the run-up to Iraq, Reynolds was one of the best-known "war-bloggers." Agree with him or not, he used his digital pulpit to address a critical topic. "
His point is about how Glenn Reynolds used his blog to address a "critical" topic. This seems to be what Levy assumes to be the "proper" role of blogs. Yet the inherent problems about who determines which topics to be critical don't cross his mind. They wouldn't. He has editors, and journalism schools, and a poltical media which march in pretty tight lock-step on this stuff, and have done so increasingly over time.

"In this mean season, however, he has relentlessly flogged the question of whether John Kerry's boat was actually in Cambodian waters on Christmas Eve, 1968, as the candidate claimed."

A man running for president is caught repeatedly lying about his military record while simultaneously citing that record as his major qualification for office in a time of war. The Levys of the world not only don't think this is important enough for the front page (let alone the pages of a blog) - they had no intention of reporting on it at all, even when the lie was proven repeatedly. They didn't think this topic was "critical."

When the mainstream media ignores a story considered important - even to a minor degree, that has proven to be a reason for bloggers to increase attention paid to it. The Mainstream types can sneer about it all they want. The reason is quite simple. We now know we can force attention to such things if we don't let the story get spiked by mainstream media editors. It's a popular veto of your editing decision.

Mind you, simultaneously to the media spurning mention of Kerry's embarrassment, the majority of mainstream media organs decided Bush's service in the National Guard - something the candidate didn't even bring up as a qualification for office - deserved coverage on the front page of the New York Times, Washington Post, the nightly news on every major network, etc. We in the blogosphere see this as a perfect refutation of Levy's preferred model for assigning the job of choosing which stories are "critical" to him and his buddies in the mainstream media.

"In an ideal world, he admits, "we should all be blogging about Kerry's health-care policy," but he says that in the current mistrustful atmosphere, it's futile to try: "The basic system where we talk about facts and policies is broken."
Did he admit that? Because he blogs, you know. So it's not hard to get his version of your version of his statement:

From Instapundit this evening....

"But [Levy] also misrepresents the quote of mine that he uses. The quote is: "The basic system where we talk about facts and policies is broken."

I said that, but as part of explaining why the media-criticism aspect of blogging is so important, and not just raucous hackery as he suggests. I didn't -- as he makes it appear -- suggest that bloggers' partisanship makes serious discussion of issues on blogs futile. Rather, I was arguing that you can't have a serious discussion of issues in the society at large, when so much of Big Media is partisan and dishonest, and that this is why it's so important to point out the dishonesty and try to make things better, which is what I see bloggers doing."

Were Mr. Levy's note going out to the Mainstream Media as well as bloggers, he'd be citing Glenn accurately. But he's not. This is presented as a comment about a broken blogosphere - though Glenn is pointing the finger just as pointedly at Levy and his kind. I'm not sure whether this is an example of the partisanship or the dishonesty Glenn mentioned in the mainstream media, but when scoring the MSM versus Blogosphere honesty contest, in that exchange Instapundit 1, Steven Levy 0.

"This attitude disappoints those who had hoped that bloggers would improve that system, not amplify its faults. In his book "We the Media," San Jose Mercury News columnist Dan Gillmor claimed that blogs could enable "the rise of the citizen journalist." Bloggers, he said, had the power to mitigate the tyranny of media giants who no longer serve the needs of the people. But when I called Gillmor last week to ask what he thought of the invectives, partisanship and fixation on ultimately trivial issues in the face of a crucial election, there was a long silence before he said, "I'm not going to disagree."
Object lesson in the way the blogosphere works for Mr. Levy here. Since you were caught misrepesenting the last person you quoted to bolster your case, we're not going to take your word on this one. Maybe he said that. Maybe not. Maybe you're taking what he said out of context, and maybe you're not. But your word is no longer sufficient to admit this into evidence.

"What went wrong? In part, it's the same reason that traditional media sometimes fall short on their civic duty: the low road is a well-trodden path to big readership. "In the blog world, people gravitate toward subjects that generate traffic," says Gillmor. "The more raucous you are, the more page views you get."
See Begging the Question for the refutation here. Glenn Reynolds is a paradigm of "raucousness"? Please.

"Also, while Big Media must answer for any missteps or favoritisms, bloggers seldom do."

This would be laughable, if not for the fact that he almost certainly believes this sincerely. The Big Media has been paying for missteps or favortism... but certainly not by any internal checks and balances. Heck, Rather's forgeries passed through CBS with nary a glance, until the blogosphere blew the story back in their faces. No, they're "answering" by means of an ever dwindling audience. Which is exactly the same check present in the blogosphere. But Levy, who apparently thinks audience is attracted to fact free trash-talking blogs over any of substance, is simply too willfully blind to notice this.

"I celebrate the liberating tools that let people post their thoughts unfiltered. But as with many other utopian predictions about how the open nature of the Net will create arenas that transcend foibles of the physical world, our faults have followed us to cyberspace. We were promised a society of philosophers. But the Blogosphere is looking more and more like a nation of ankle-biters."
Anyone out there know of a single blogger who thought blogging was going to "transcend foibles of the physical world?" No? Me neither. And who on earth promised Steven Levy's crowd a society of philosopers. And why was he such a dupe he believed it?

The only place I've read nonsense like that is in major media publications. Usually along with flashy covers and splash quotes. If bloggers have a fault it's in the opposite direction - skepticism can sometimes border on cynicism. It seems to be a far more down to earth world than Steven Levy is familiar with. And one in which his relevancy is looking especially suspect after this piece of name-calling nonsense.

Look, Levy's overall problem is that he is truly ignorant of the blogosphere. He takes on the portion that happened to cross into territory he considers the province of his profession, and judges it the way one would judge a new printed news magazine on a news-rack. This is flawed for reasons deeper than basic economics or business model. It's flawed because it assumes blogs should go about things the way the old media do, not stopping to think that the old media's methods were developed specifically in alignment with the limitations of their medium.

Blogs are not just about new people doing journalism - they're about a whole new medium, perhaps as significant as the printing press. We're not going to play by all the rules Levy understands, because many of them don't apply.

Levy seems to only be able to think of blogs as either utopian fantasy, or just another traditional-media journalism outlet. Confined to these terms, he's spectacularly unsuited to understand what's going on in front of his eyes. Perhaps if he took more time listening to Glenn Reynolds as someone trying to understand, rather than looking for ammunition for his sophomoric diatribe, he would start to grasp the topic more concretely.


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