21st-Century Journalism XVI: Bashing the BlogosphereIt does not inspire confidence in a journalist's judgment when he uses the blog equivalents of scandal rags to call into question the utility of the blogosphere as a whole.
It is true, as Joseph Rago, an assistant editorial features editor at the Wall Street Journal puts it in a column this morning, that "[m]any blogs, even some with large followings, are downright appalling." Rago complains about a pervasive "tone of careless informality" and then, applying a broad brush, elaborates by saying that
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 ..."As I argued in an earlier post, the key to using and appreciating the blogosphere is selectivity. It is actually quite easy to find well-written blogs produced by discerning individuals who, never claiming to do original reportage, provide valuable analysis that is all too often missing in today's traditional media. There are also responsible blogs that bring to fact-checking the wisdom of the crowd.
I'm not sure whether Rago has noticed, but one of the frustrations that exercises capable bloggers is the frequency of unsupported generalization the mainstream media make room for on their editorial pages. Rago claims that
the inferiority of the [blog] medium is rooted in its new, distinctive literary form. Its closest analogue might be the (poorly kept) diary or commonplace book, or the note scrawled to oneself on the back of an envelope though these things are not meant for public consumption. The reason for a blog's being is: Here's my opinion, right now. (emphasis in original)Only someone who is not familiar with the variety of styles and intents to be found in the blogosphere could make such an assertion.
You have to get halfway through Rago's column before you learn that he is actually talking strictly about political blogs, an important segment of the blogosphere, but still only a segment. Even restricting ourselves to political bloggers, the principle of selectivity applies.
Rago says, "We rarely encounter sustained or systematic blog thought instead, panics and manias..." Rago is being too random in his reading. If you choose intelligently, you can consistently "encounter sustained and systematic thought" in the blogs you devote time to. As just a couple of examples, I would cite Glenn Greenwald's Unclaimed Territory and the Becker-Posner Blog.
Rago suggests that it's a surprise that we don't have "the market sorting out the vagaries of individual analysis" in the blogosphere. The "market" Rago is talking about deals in influence, which is not a singular product, subject to steady improvement as a result of contending "consumer" forces. Anyone who has even glanced at political discussions knows that they can continue for an extended period of time, even indefinitely, as the parties involved maneuver to win whatever votes and regulatory decisions are relevant.
Rago finally reaches safe ground when he notes the tendency of like-minded people to flock together at congenial blogs where their pet ssumptions about the world are reinforced rather than being critically examined. This self-sorting lets people avoid pressure to open their minds so that they can recognize common ground and consider new ideas. It's no particular comfort to learn that a similar tendency of newspapers to cater to the biases of their local audiences has recently been documented. (Rago sticks with the alternate hypothesis, namely that the traditional media "pursue adversarial agendas," as opposed to more simply trying to appeal to their readers' general position along the political spectrum.)
Aside from Rago's own problems with writing style his stuffiness is reminiscent of a college journalist trying too hard for profundity his low-res depiction of the blogosphere and the dynamics of its influence on people's thinking does not advance our understanding of its role in the today's media universe. Arriving at such an understanding is important because the impact of (selected) blogs is steadily increasing, as witnessed by the rise in citations in live public discussions and in traditional media. (Not to mention that traditional media are adding blogs to their websites.)
If you are interested in a counterpoint to Rago's view, here is a speech by E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post on "How the New Media and the Old Media Could Live Together Happily and Enhance Public Life."