Saturday, December 31, 2005

Cooking Her Goose

Kathleen Parker writes an ill-tempered rant against most of blogdom:

There's something frankly creepy about the explosion we now call the Blogosphere--the big-bang "electroniverse" where recently wired squatters set up new camps each day. As I write, the number of blogs (Web logs) and bloggers (those who blog) is estimated in the tens of millions worldwide.

Although I've been a blog fan since the beginning, and have written favorably about the value added to journalism and public knowledge thanks to the new "citizen journalist," I'm also wary of power untempered by restraint and accountability.

There we go - the usual complaint of the print media about restraint and accountability. Well, yes, it's pretty self-evident that some blogs are riven by inaccuracies. That's the nature of what will always, overwhelmingly, be a part-time hobby. As I've said before, blogs are most useful in drawing out debates and refining them to a level of sophistication or depth that simply isn't possible in a daily newspaper. Anyone who expects them to be rigorously checked, or relies on them for their information is likely to be badly informed. If the reading of blogs, however, is used as a means of multiplying viewpoints on a particular area, or directing someone towards new and interesting articles, research papers, or whatever, then they are likely to become much better-informed as a result of having delved into the blogosphere.

Few bloggers would deny that their hobby relies on the print and broadcast media - without their information, there would be almost nothing to comment on. But Parker's article ignores the pernicious aspects of the print and broadcast media themselves - that is, that they will not always be 100% accurate. Yet whereas a blog is unlikely to be taken as gospel without corroborating reports, or heavy sources, something that is printed in a newspaper is generally considered much more serious. And if the blogosphere shows anything, it is that newspapers are not 100% reliable. I'm not talking about the Jayson Blairs of the world who flagrantly make things up. I'm talking about the manipulation of statistics to embellish a case; assertions that are made lazily, rather than rigorously fact-checked because of the pressures of a deadline, or they were seemingly inconsequential to a story. Not something the blogosphere is free of, admittedly - but certainly something that newspapers are guilty of. Just because something is in print doesn't make it true.

Bloggers persist no matter their contributions or quality, though most would have little to occupy their time were the mainstream media to disappear tomorrow. Some bloggers do their own reporting, but most rely on mainstream reporters to do the heavy lifting. Some bloggers also offer superb commentary, but most babble, buzz and blurt like caffeinated adolescents competing for the Ritalin generation's inevitable senior superlative: Most Obsessive-Compulsive.

Yes, but bloggers without something interesting to say are unlikely to gain any sort of readership whatsoever, unless masters of self-publicity. Of course the blogosphere isn't short of its ranters and ravers. It's depressing when blogs become popular because of rude language or because they are supposedly "controversial" in what they say, rather than having any intrinsic merit whatsoever. Again, however, does this really distinguish itself from the print and broadcast media? Does Parker really think that Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter or Michael Moore are popular because of their intellectual weight, or (hopefully) because they shout the loudest? And that's because print and roadcast media want to shout loudest for attention - just like aspiring bloggers. Ultimately, it's the quality that will rise. And if it isn't, it's likely only playing to people's existing prejudices anyway.

The best bit of all, though, comes at the end:

What Golding demonstrated--and what we're witnessing as the Blogosphere's offspring multiply--is that people tend to abuse power when it is unearned and will bring down others to enhance themselves. Likewise, many bloggers seek the destruction of others for their own self-aggrandizement. When a mainstream journalist stumbles, they pile on like so many savages, hoisting his or her head on a bloody stick as Golding's children did the fly-covered head of a butchered sow.

Well, if this article is any evidence, it's hardly surprising. It's not as if Ms Parker is taking a conciliatory tone here, is it? Much of the print media's coverage of the blogosphere is patronising at best, and insulting at worst: where blogs get quoted in the papers, it tends to be tiny snippets of minimal value (less interesting than even the letters pages), or some snide remarks are being made about fact-checking again. Any wonder that when this attitude is shown to be hypocritical, people are willing to celebrate it? Maybe not the most admirable attitude in the world - but certainly understandable.

Yes, bloggers may be dependent on the print media to give them the information on which they comment or expound. Yes, they are able to print anything they like with little chance of repercussions (although if false, they have little chance of readership either). That doesn't mean they don't have something valuable to say. And until the likes of Ms Parker are willing to recognise this, then their swarming around journalists like vultures until they slip up will only continue.