Gone To the Blogs
"We don't know exactly how many there are. But they number in the tens of thousands. They are everywhere among us. They intend to tear down the world as we know it...."
Those might sound like the opening lines to a trashy Triffids novel or a Rumsfeld rant about mad mullahs threatening the USA -- but Jonah Goldberg in the Washington Times is in fact writing about blogs.
You know blogs: personal, self-made websites where Anyman (or Anywoman) comments about the news, links to other sites or posts pictures of their pets. Weblogs, to give them their full techie name, have been around since the mid-1990s, and now they're everywhere. According to CNN, "Several sources put the total number of blogs in the range of 200,000 to 500,000". Blogger.com, which provides idiot-proof software for setting up your own weblog, claims that 1000 blogs are created on its site every day.
Most blogs have a dozen or so readers, but a handful have built up audiences in their thousands. There are news blogs, comment blogs, war blogs, diet blogs, disease blogs, cat blogs, dog blogs, blogs about blogs. There's even a "homeless guy" blog, written by a fortysomething man who lives on the streets of Nashville, Tennessee. "All human life is there," said the UK Guardian in a feature about the "blogging phenomenon."
The vast majority of the estimated 200,000 to 500,000 blogs are little more than online diaries, where individuals post musings and write about their daily experiences. But there is a growing number of "big bloggers" -- bloggers who write about news, politics and culture -- who claim to be forging new forms of journalism and correspondence.
Apparently, such blogs threaten the traditional media's hold over the spread of information and ideas. By allowing the man in the street to get his hands on the means of production -- to write, produce and publish his own content without needing an editor or publisher -- blogging has been hailed as a "publishing revolution," which will "transform journalism" and "democratise the media."
Glenn Reynolds, an American law professor who runs the hugely popular weblog InstaPundit, claims 2003 will be the "year of the blog." "For Big Media," says Reynolds, "[blogging] is going to produce an increasing degree of either conscientiousness or paranoia, as it becomes apparent that the megaphone now works both ways..."
For Andrew Sullivan -- British-journo-in-America, Sunday Times columnist and big into blogging -- there has been nothing less than a "blogging revolution." "Blogging is changing the media world and could, I think, foment a revolution in how journalism functions in our culture," says Sullivan. He goes so far as to argue that blogging might represent "a publishing revolution more profound than anything since the printing press." Wow.
So is the "blogosphere" making the crusty publishers of yesteryear obsolete? Is the spread of personal websites on a par with the birth of print? Not quite. Blogging may be fun -- which is why I've been publishing one at brendanoneill.net for the past six months; it may even be a new and exciting way of using the web. But it's not journalism, and it ain't no revolution.
For all the claims that the "big bloggers" are challenging the traditionalists, in fact many blogs simply leech off the old-style media. The political and comment blogs that are seen as being at the forefront of the "blogging revolution" often do little more than write about and react to articles published in traditional media outlets (or "the Big Media" as they call it), rather than generating new journalistic content.
Two of the things that bloggers became famous for in 2002 were "Fisking" and the "fact-checking of asses" (seriously -- as in "Blogs: fact-checking Big Media's ass"). Fisking is named after the Independent's left-leaning foreign correspondent Robert Fisk, who is despised by many right-wing bloggers for what they perceive to be his anti-American attitudes and especially for his critical comments about Israel. According to one "Blogging Glossary," published on a libertarian weblog, to Fisk is to "deconstruct an article on a point by point basis in a highly critical manner."
And they really mean "point by point" -- some bloggers leap on the latest column by Robert Fisk, or Paul Krugman of the New York Times or George Monbiot of the UK Guardian, whomever they like the least, and Fisk the content in often laborious detail.
Then there's "Fact-checking asses," which, according to the Blogging Glossary, means "using internet search engines to ascertain the veracity of dubious claims made in the press." According to Glenn Reynolds of InstaPundit, there is something almost subversive about keeping the old media in check like this. He writes of the "underdoggish thrill of hobbyists 'fact-checking the asses' of the pros who chafe at the slightest indication of non-pros intruding on their monopoly turf."
If bloggers want to spend their time fact-checking the traditional media's ass, that's fine -- and some of them even do it entertainingly. But when that becomes a major focus of blogging, it hardly points to a "radical transformation" of the "journalistic culture." Blogs come across less as a revolutionary vanguard remaking journalism into something new and dynamic, and more like traditional journalism's poor cousin -- putting it down, picking holes in its arguments, and generally having a good old moan about the Fisks and Krugmans of the world.
An ironic effect of the "Fisking culture" has been to boost traditional journalism's fortunes on the web. As a result of having his name turned into a verb, Robert Fisk has assumed almost legendary proportions on sections of the internet. Fisk is now a kind of mythical figure, that strange British journalist who dares to say the unthinkable -- a view which, it has to be said, is often out of proportion to any biting insight on Fisk's part.
In May 2002, Hollywood star and well-known web-user John Malkovich was asked whom he would most like to fight to the death and he nominated Robert Fisk, capturing Fisk's newfound fame (and loathing) as a result of bloggers having spread his name around the web.
Likewise, some claim that the UK Guardian has become a big read around the worldwide web largely as a result of bloggers attacking it. Andrew Sullivan, the right-wing journalist whose personal blog is one of the most popular, has made a point of "Fisking" Guardian articles -- and according to Wyeth Ruthven, who runs a centre-left American blog, "No one here had even heard of the Guardian until Sullivan began his personal jihad" (surely an exaggeration?). Writing in the New Statesman, British blogger James Crabtree claims that "in a country [the USA] with no recognisable left of its own, bloggers have made [the Guardian] the pantomime villain of the right."
The blogosphere's focus on the faults and failings of the traditional media does more than give a shot to print journalism's web presence -- it also makes for blog-writing that is more bitter and bitchy than insightful. By setting themselves up against "Big Media," against the writers they love to hate (or love to love), bloggers often sound like the critics who can't rather than journalists who can. There is a group of right-wing British bloggers who spend their days Fisking the Guardian -- except they don't call it the Guardian, they call it the Wanker. Which is not even funny. And see what I mean about bitter?
This kind of blogging is little more than a subjective spouting match, where bloggers spill forth their views on everything, anything and sometimes nothing. But there is more to journalism than instant reaction and response. Good journalism involves rising above your immediate concerns, weighing up the facts, and attempting to say something more measured and insightful -- sometimes even truthful and profound. Blogging creates a white noise of personal prejudice, akin to students arguing in a bar rather than experts saying anything striking. I haven't got a problem with pub-style debates about the issues of the day -- but journalism it isn't.
On my weblog, for example, I have a recurring item called "What the fuck...?" -- for when something so bizarre happens, or when a public figure says something so ridiculous, that there is little more to say in response than "What the fuck...?" President Bush says Saddam Hussein got al-Qaeda to bomb Bali: what the fuck? Jimmy Carter wins the Nobel Prize for Peace: what the fuck? Et cetera...
But this isn't journalism -- it's a blogger's rant. If I were to write a journalistic piece about Bush's obsession with a link between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda it would have to say more than 'What the fuck...?' And if bloggers fancy themselves as cutting-edge "new journalists" giving the old media a run for its money, they'll have to do more than post quickfire comments in response to already published material or breaking news or another blogger's comments about another blogger's comments. Perhaps they could start by generating some new content.
The rise of blogging on the web, and the way in which it has been hailed as a media revolution not only by bloggers but also by some newspapers, reflects recent shifts within journalism itself. In the traditional media, everywhere from the papers to the TV, there has been a rise in personal opinions and emotionally responsive journalism over objectivity and hard-hitting investigation. Of course, there's nothing wrong with opinion journalism, especially if the journalist has got something to say. But too often today, much opinion writing seems to be driven more by feelings and emotions than by insight or having a distinct argument to put forward.
It is unsurprising, then, that similar trends are impacting on online journalism. And the thing about the web is that, even more than newspapers and TV, it lends itself to the expression of personal opinion and prejudice. The ease and speed with which anyone can publish their views on the web is no doubt a potentially positive development, but it can lead to an explosion of opinion that ends up saying very little. To describe this free-for-all expression/commenting/ranting as a journalistic revolution is disingenuous. As Clint Eastwood once said, "Opinions are like assholes -- everybody has one."
A final claim made by bloggers is that they can offer radically more content than we will find in the word-counted articles subbed and squashed into a newspaper or magazine. "We can publish everything online," says one blogger: "transcripts, research material, every detail. Newspapers publish, what? 800 words?"
To this end, Sheila Lennon, a well-known American blogger, recently published on her blog the entire transcript of an interview that she gave to the New York Times. The NYT interviewed Lennon about the blogging phenomenon, but only used one sentence from her in the published article. Lennon said the Times "asked fine questions, and I didn't wince when I read my answers," but still she felt the urge to post the entire interview on her own blog. "It seemed natural for me to publish the 'rest of the story' online for readers who might be interested."
All of which is fine -- except this reproduction of source material was then presented as some kind of radical act. According to the American Journalism Review: "Not only had Lennon revealed the raw material of a story; she'd empowered herself as a citizen publisher and an interviewee." The Review claimed that by publishing the interview transcript, Lennon had created a "really revolutionary scenario," where "anyone can set up a virtual press in order to contribute to the reporting process, talk back to a journalist or set the record straight."
The "Lennon incident" (as some now refer to it...) showed the benefits of publishing on the web -- and also how such benefits get blown out of proportion. One of the most transformative things about web publishing, as distinct from print publishing, is that you can provide "extra material." Through hyperlinks, further reading suggestions and footnotes, articles on the web can become gateways to a wealth of material. Some blogs do this very well, providing links to articles you might otherwise not have found -- and you only have to browse the BBC News website to see the promise of such publishing.
But to describe this as a new form of journalism, as "putting journalism's house in order," is bizarre. Indeed, Sheila Lennon's self-publication of her interview transcript ended up reminding me what journalists are for. There was some interesting stuff in the transcript, but generally it was long, rambling and boring in parts -- as transcripts tend to be. By contrast, the final New York Times article, which incorporated a tiny part of the interview, was measured, concise and a good read.
It might feel "empowering" to publish transcripts and other "behind the scenes" material -- but a professional journalist's job is to take all that material, consider it, and turn it into something more profound. That's why editors exist -- to ensure that published material is readable and clear. No doubt some writers would like to have their every word published, but editors put economy and clarity before writer overload. Indeed, some modern newspapers and book publishers could do with harder editors.
The blogosphere, by contrast, not only lacks editors, it celebrates their absence. It claims that this lack of quality control gives the blogosphere a special freedom. As a result, the bloggers' "radical act" of providing raw material as a way of challenging traditional journalists' stranglehold over information often shows up just how important traditional journalists, and editors, are.
For all that, I actually like blogs. Really I do. Some are funny, some alert me to interesting articles, some even say original things. But the biggest revolution since the birth of the printing press? Blog off.
Brendan O'Neill is an assistant editor at Spiked Online.