Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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May 11, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

BLOG NAVEL GAZING....The Connection, one of NPR's morning shows, did a segment today with George Packer, who wrote about his love/hate relationship with blogs in Mother Jones earlier this month. David Adesnik of OxBlog was also a guest, and Packer mentioned that he had been taken aback a few months ago when he met David and chatted with him about his dissertation, only to find that within a few hours their conversation had been blogged for the entire world to see.

So what does David do? Within 30 minutes of being on the air with Packer he's already blogged about it! That's showing him!

I was on for a few minutes after David, but as usual with radio there wasn't really time to say much of anything, although I did manage to get in a plug for Phil Carter's expert coverage of the Abu Ghraib scandal.

I have to admit that I was laughing as I listened to the lead-in, with Packer talking about how he finds himself getting sucked into blogs for hours at a time and is now trying to wean himself off his addiction. He sounded like a three-time loser promising that he was going to kick the habit and this time he really means it!

Well, there's not much question that a steady diet of blogs is no better for you than a steady diet of pizza, but I think that misses the point. Of course you should ingest a wide variety of news sources, but in the same way that newspapers excel at broad coverage of breaking news, TV excels at images, magazines excel at long analytic pieces, and talk radio excels at ranting screeds, blogs also excel at certain things. Trying to compare them to "journalism" is a mug's game at best, like trying to figure out if a beanbag is really a chair. Who cares? Beanbags are great for certain forms of sitting down and lousy at others.

So what are blogs good at? I've been promising to write something about this ever since I first blogged about Packer's blog article, but I don't feel like writing a long essay about it here. (Long essays are for magazines, remember?) But I really do think blogs have certain merits that other mediums don't, so instead of an essay, here's a very bloglike bullet list of some of the virtues that I think blogs bring to the public discourse party:

  • The first person style of blog posts often allows bloggers to do a better job of explaining complex subjects than the odd, almost Victorian style of newspaper and TV writing. Blogs can simply say, straight out, "here are the three main points and here's how they affect the argument at hand." Newspaper articles, by contrast, are often so laden down by superflous quotes and faux objectivity that by the time you're finished you're still confused about what's really going on.

  • Blogs can aggregrate information from a lot of different sources. The conventions of mainstream journalism don't really allow this. A Washington Post story, for example, might mention a single outside news source that's broken a story or has a unique fact, but that's about it. Blogs, by contrast, can collect half a dozen points from half a dozen different sources and quote them directly. There's no institutional loyalty to defend.

  • Blog posts can be any length. If a thought only deserves a couple of sentences, that's what it gets. If it deserves a thousand words, it can get that too. When was the last time you saw a 200-word op-ed or a 20-minute segment on the evening news?

  • Bloggers don't have sources. That means there's very little original reporting in blogs, but it also means bloggers don't have to worry about either protecting sources or protecting access to sources. That makes a difference in how openly they can criticize newsmakers.

  • Blogs don't have to maintain the same standards as mainstream journalists. They can toss out ideas and rumors in a way that's genuinely valuable but hard to do in the mainstream media. I think this quality is essential to blogs, and it's one of the reasons I suspect that mainstream journalists will never truly become bloggers. Newspapers legitimately have high standards for what they're willing to report, and these high standards simply don't fit in with the anything-goes atmosphere of the blogosphere.

  • Blogs allow unapologetic passion. Even on the op-ed page, convention dictates a sober, clinical style that makes it hard for writers to really say what they mean and for readers to figure out what axe the author has to grind. With blogs you're never in doubt about the author's point of view.

  • Blogs can obsess over a single topic in a way that's hard for newspapers. This is sometimes a great weakness, of course, but it can also be a great strength at times.

  • I happen to dislike the typographical constraints of newspapers. Blogs, by contrast, can use bullets, blockquotes, and hyperlinks in ways that genuinely aid in making complex information more accessible.

  • Finally, blogging is a two-way street. Blogs respond to each other and commenters respond to blogs. Blogs are a great way to get a quick read on what topics are really raising the blood pressure of that small group of people who care passionately about politics.

You might notice something missing from my list: fact checking their asses. Bloggers tend to think that one of their greatest contributions is keeping an eye on the mainstream press, but color me unconvinced. With only occasional exceptions, I've found that press criticism on blogs is little more than hyperpartisan nitpicking. If that were truly our crowning glory, I'd pitch the whole blogosphere into the rubbish bin.

Needless to say, blogs have plenty of weaknesses as well as strengths, but that's true of all mediums and I'll leave that for another time (or another person). Bottom line: blogs are different, not better or worse than radio, TV, or print, and the best blogs are the ones that truly take advantage of the unique strengths of the medium. Those that do, regardless of whether or not they're really "journalism," are genuinely new and powerful contributions to the political reporting scene.

Kevin Drum 1:56 PM Permalink | Trackbacks

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