Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Bad blogs! Bad! Bad!

Forbes magazine has published a lengthy attack on the blogs under the title "Attack of the Blogs." (Registration required and it's a bit of a hassle, but a way to bypass it, with some commentary, can be found here.)

The gist of the article is that because of the amorphousness, vastness, and speed of the blogosphere, nasty and even slanderous attacks from blogs on individuals or companies can be very difficult to combat.

Bloggers respond here, here, here, here and here (and in many other places, I'm sure). Some reactions are predictable -- e.g., La Shawn Barber:

I’ll admit that in the aggregate, blogs can whip up a frenzy and create an opinion storm that probably scares the establishment more than we bloggers imagine. And that’s good.

This is America. It’s our duty to challenge politicians and the press, and with a free market system, businesses better beware, too. What frightens them so much is they can’t control us. Yes, if we libel companies or individuals, there should be consequences. But a blog swarm in itself is not a crime or an infringement of anyone’s civil rights.

A blog swarm can be a stinging gadfly, a much-dreaded possibility, or someone’s worst nightmare, but in my opinion, blogging is free expression at its purest. If we’re willing to embrace this freedom, we ought to be willing to embrace its power.

For a more balanced perspective see Doc Searl, who acknowledges that the Forbes piece has a point though he adds that it is full of unfair generalizations:

I'd like to ask Dan — and others who damn all bloggers for the sins of the few — how they'd like to read a report that calls supermarket tabloids "the newspapers" or hate sheets "the magazines." Because that's what happened to bloggers in this piece.
Very true. The Forbes piece was shoddy and full of generalizations and strange logical leaps. Take, for instance, this passage:

Even mighty Microsoft, for all its billions, dares not defy the blogosphere. In April gay bloggers attacked Microsoft over its failure to support a gay-rights bill in Washington State (the company is based near Seattle). "Dear Microsoft, You messed with the wrong faggots," wrote John Aravosis, publisher of AmericaBlog, which threatened to oppose Microsoft's plans for a big campus expansion unless the company caved in. Microsoft reversed itself two weeks later, saying it supports gay-rights legislation after all. It says pressure from its own employees, not from bloggers, caused the change of heart.
So was it the bloggers or the employees? How does Forbes know it was the former? And if it was, how is this different, in principle, from pressure exerted by print media or talk radio or an old-fashioned letters campaign?

Professional journalists, if you're going to attack bloggers for irresponsibility, you'd better make sure you got your facts straight.

Nonetheless, I think that the blogocrats (dang, I thought I'd coined a phrase but just found 90 hits for it on Google) can be pretty smug about the self-correcting power of the blogosphere. As Powerline's John Hinderaker told Forbes: "Some people in the blogosphere are too smug about free speech. They'll say it's okay if people get slandered or if people make up fake stuff because in the end the truth wins out ... But I don't think that excuses it." No, it doesn't. The truth doesn't always win out in a cacophony of discordant voices. And even if it does, by then a lot of damage may be done. How would you like to battle rumors that you're a spouse abuser or a child abuser for two or three weeks before the dust settles?

The other day, a certain David Weinberger of Joho the Blog took issue with my critique of certain bloggers who fueled the "Jihad at the University of Oklahoma" hysteria. His main point seemed to be that the New York Times gets things wrong too. Okay, it does; as I pointed out in my response to Mr. Weinberger, I acknowledged that in my column. In his reply, Weinberger accused me of making a "hasty generalization" about blogs, and then went on to say:

Blogs, to my way of thinking, are an extension of the conversations we've been having with our friends ever since humans starting having friends. That means we gossip, go wrong, speak without evidence, speculate wildly, leave typos uncorrected, and make tasteless jokes. The conversational nature of blogging - which necessarily includes its fallibility - is something. I believe, we need to encourage, not reform.

Because blogging is a conversation (imo), it continues even after some reasonable people think the hash has been settled. Journalism, on the other hand, aims at discovering facts, piecing together the truth, resolving the issue, publishing it, and moving on to the next edition. That's good too, but so is the nattering refusal to accept the WSJ's and FBI's resolution of an issue.

Well, if Weinberg's description is correct, what he says about blogs is more damning than any generalization I could make.

Are the bloggers "citizen journalists," or gossips with a wider reach than ever before? If they're the latter, then their growing influence is indeed cause for alarm. Fortunately, I don't think the blogosphere is nearly as bad as Weinberger paints it (though of course he doesn't think his portrait is "bad"). But still.

Yes, the mainstream media can also perpetrate lies and smears (see the McMartin case), and in a way those lies and smears are far more dangerous than the blogs' because they established newspapers, magazines, and TV stations do have more credibility. On the other hand, a lie or distortion in the blogosphere can spread much faster, and can be far more difficult to put down -- and also, the culprit can be much, much more difficult to identify.

The only answer, as I suggested before, is for bloggers to hold themselves and each other to higher standards. It may not be easy, given the amorphous nature of the blogosphere. But we can try.

La Shawn Barber says that with freedom of expression comes power, and we (bloggers, and presumably mainstream journalists who "get it") shouldn't be afraid of it. That's a fine sentiment. But power without responsibility is very bad news.


Anonymous said...

"With Power comes great responsibility" - Spiderman's Uncle


That said, the bloggosphere of today is comparable to the early days of "free press," in the States. It was just as messy and unguarded in its speech. And it was considered so important that the right to this kind of speech was preserved - warts and all - by the founding fathers. After all, back then, the MSM did *not* exist.

It was farmer's almanacs and political treatises and gossip pages and "News with Views."

Of course, it was limited to only those who owned or could run a press, but it was still just as wild (if not a ubiquitous).

The power to the people is firmly entrenched in the randomness of free speech. This is not a right for the people precisely because it relies on the power of the "mob," to preserve it.

The reason the revolution happened at all was that there was enough emotional impetus based on rumor, news, philosophy, fact and whatnot, to stir folks into taking up arms for a cause.

Naturally, the MSM (and the government) would love to not see this happen again. But, I've already seen blogs that espouse armed uprisings.

That said, so far commentary to these blog entries and forums have been along the lines of "good luck with all that." Or, "You're crazy."

Which does seem to point to the equalizing force of common sense. Right now most folks would not even consider marching down the street with their 2nd amendment protected rifles.

But this right to converse about the possibility does rightly put the government and the Mainstream Press on notice that *they* are not the one's in charge, ultimately speaking.

And, I think it's a good thing.

Anonymous said...

Man I wish they'd let us edit:

What I said in the original bit:

This is not a right for the people precisely because it relies on the power of the "mob," to preserve it.

What I meant to say:

This is an established right for the people, precisely because it relies on the power of the "mob," to preserve it.

It's not mean to enhance the power of the Mainstream media. It is meant to enhance the power of the random individual.

Revenant said...

It seems strange to point to the "suicide bomber" fiasco as evidence of the fecklessness of blogs (compared to the MSM) when a good ninety percent of blog coverage of the event was pulled straight from MSM papers and networks.

When blogs achieve the level of witch-hunt hysteria and journalistic incompetence of, for example, the McMartin case... well, then maybe I'll worry. But for now, it seems like blogs routinely do a far better job at separating fact from fiction, and deflating (rather than encouraging) outbreaks of mass hysteria, than mainstream papers and networks do.

Cathy Young said...

bearblue -- good analogy to the revolutionary-era press.

Of course, it's a somewhat ambivalent analogy, as well. It is now commonly understood that popular accounts of the Boston Massacre, for instance, were filled with distortions, and the Paul Revere engraving widely used to stir up patriotic fervor was completely inaccurate (depicting a systematic cold-blooded massacre by the Redcoats rather than a confused melee with violence on both sides).

revenant -- good point, and I did point out in my original blogpost on this issue, the "jihad in Oklahoma" hysteria was in fact the result of the (local) MSM and (a few) blogs reinforcing each other in the worst way possible.

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