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June 07, 2006

Why I love the internet-2: Bypassing the official pundits

Yesterday I discussed how blogs and other forms of alternative media on the internet prevented Stephen Colbert's speech to the White House Correspondents Association Dinner from being ignored. But that is not the only benefit of the internet. The more important innovation may be the rise of blogs as alternative and better sources of news analysis and commentary.

Some time ago, I was on the Cleveland PBS show Feagler and Friends along with Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton discussing the future of newspapers in the age of the internet and blogs. Neither Clifton nor Feagler seemed very knowledgeable about blogs (for example, they seemed to think that Wikipedia was a blog), which surprised me, since blogs are rapidly becoming a major force in, for want of a better name, the alternative media.

Clearly these two people with long histories in traditional newspapers were worried that the internet would speed the demise of newspapers, which are already suffering declines in readership, especially among younger readers. But their criticisms of blogs were somewhat ill-informed and seemed to be based on a stereotype of bloggers as ignorant ranters. They did (correctly) point out that any one can create a website and self-publish, even anonymously, and that there was no quality control as to whether what was said on a blog was reliable or not, whereas newspaper reports and columns had to pass through several editorial layers before seeing the light of day. But their inference that hence blogs should not be taken seriously and might even be harmful was not justified.

In my response, I said that there would always be room for the traditional journalist, the person who gets the primary information. We need people with trained reporting skills to be out there interviewing people, witnessing events, asking questions, obtaining documents, etc. So this role of the traditional media will likely remain, although even here there are independent people who are taking advantage of the access that the internet provides to become independent journalists providing first-hand reports. (I am thinking of people like Dahr Jamail who has been doing some good original reporting from Iraq.) Of course, such freelancers are more limited in their access to official figures because of their lack of credentials and uncertain financial support, but this might conversely work in their favor since they are more likely to go off the beaten track and report non-official news.

But I think that where the internet and blogs are really going to change things is with the traditional national newspaper columnists. People like George Will, Maureen Dowd, Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and Richard Cohen are rapidly becoming dinosaurs whose days are numbered.

To see why this is so, we need to understand why the media hire and support these pundits. The standard reason is that columnists are expected to provide perspective and insights on the news, and be able to translate complex policy issues into more readily understandable form. It is assumed that these are people with broad experience who study news events, have access to background information on them, and thus can tell the rest of us (who are presumably too busy with out lives to study the issues) what the news means and what should be done.

In actual practice, none of the above-named columnists have any more expertise on the news than you or me. It is not obvious to me that they even study the issues more than the rest of us. There are rare exceptions. Paul Krugman is a professional economist and thus is in a good position to analyze complex budgetary and fiscal issues and reports. But most columnists do not have that kind of expert and detailed knowledge. They just glibly pontificate.

Maureen Dowd's snarky humor quickly wears thin and is downright irritating. Has David Broder, the supposed dean of newspaper columnists and a so-called 'liberal,' said anything of real interest in the last twenty years? Can anyone follow David Brook's leaps of logic? Isn't it obvious that Charles Krauthammer's extremely partisan ideology colors everything he says? For how long can George Will's bow tie and pompous phrasings hide the vacuousness of his thought? And what on earth are Thomas Friedman's banalities supposed to mean?

Listen to such people closely as they discuss things like tax cuts. They give only a quick nod to the actual details of the policy or its impact. They rarely talk hard numbers or work through detailed implications of actual policies, They quickly shift the debate to personnel, politics, and style, addressing such questions as: Will the new policy (whatever it is) help the President/Republican/Democrat fortunes? Will the public support it? How should they sell it? How will it affect the next elections? What do the polls say and what does it mean? And so on.

But the real purpose served by such columnists is to serve as guardians of the boundaries of acceptable debate, and thus thought. Think of them as like sheepdogs with us, the public, as sheep. Their job is to make sure that all our articulated opinions stay within a certain range. So people like Cohen and Dowd and Broder, by being identified as liberals, serve as the 'liberal' goal posts and Will, Krauthammer, and Brooks similarly serve as the 'conservative' goal posts. (Friedman occupies his own weird space.) They are the people who define 'mainstream' or 'moderate' opinion. So liberals are supposed to take their cues from liberal commentators and conservatives from their standard bearers. As long as we stay within the boundaries of thought defined by these people, we are allowed to participate in the discussion. But step outside these defined boundaries, and you are labeled an extremist and kicked out of the game.

Take for example, Iraq. Before the war began, the acceptable range of opinion was that Iraq and its leaders were undoubtedly evil and needed to be replaced, the motives of the Bush administration were good and honorable, and the only issues up for debate was whether more diplomacy and time should be allowed for Hussein's overthrow or an immediate attack launched. Cohen and William Raspberry (another so-called 'liberal' columnist) both swooned with admiration over Colin Powell's disgraceful and now thoroughly discredited speech to the UN and announced that they were now convinced that attacking Iraq was the right thing to do, thus serving notice to all people who considered themselves liberals that they should get on the war-wagon or be considered 'outside the mainstream.'

Now that the Iraq debacle has occurred, the range of allowed opinion has shifted slightly to say that the information on which the war was based was flawed and the implementation was bad, but what we should debate now is how to solve the problem that has been created.

It was not allowed at any time to make a more fundamental case and argue that the attack on Iraq was an act of unprovoked aggression on a country that had never attacked, or even threatened, the US, that the motives of the Bush administration were never honorable, that they repeatedly and deliberately lied and misled the public about the evidence, and that the key perpetrators should be impeached and tried for war crimes. Such talk was, and still is, not allowed in polite company. Say things like that and you are shunned and outside the game.

Thus the role of the columnists is to keep the discussion within 'safe' boundaries. As a result people who had sharper criticisms of policies tended to keep quiet about them for fear of being labeled an extremist or worse. And before the days of the internet, such people were completely isolated and thus it was easy to keep them quiet.

But not anymore.

Next: How blogs have dramatically changed the pundit game

POST SCRIPT: And now, the Rapture video game!

About a year ago, I posted a series of items (here, here, and here) about the blood and gore aspects of the rapture based on the Left Behind series of books and suggested in a comment on Mark Wilson's blog that it contained all the elements necessary to make a violent video game. Mark subsequently reported that such a game was actually in the works.

Well, it turns out that the game Left Behind: Eternal Forces has been created and is going to be marketed for the coming Christmas season. This website reviews the game and its creators and describes the goals of the game:

Imagine: you are a foot soldier in a paramilitary group whose purpose is to remake America as a Christian theocracy, and establish its worldly vision of the dominion of Christ over all aspects of life. You are issued high-tech military weaponry, and instructed to engage the infidel on the streets of New York City. You are on a mission - both a religious mission and a military mission -- to convert or kill Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, gays, and anyone who advocates the separation of church and state - especially moderate, mainstream Christians.

Ah, yes, there's nothing that captures the spirit of Christmas more than murdering all those who disagree with your own extreme vision of it. I don't know about the wisdom of their choice of city, though. In real life, Christian warriors might be hopelessly outnumbered by their enemies in New York City. I'm guessing that the number of gays alone would be enough to rout the rapturites. They should perhaps start with a more realistic location (say Topeka, Kansas) and hone their killing skills before taking on the core of the Big Apple.

Here's the official website for the game. Its creators are apparently connected to Rick Warren, author of the book The Purpose Driven Life.

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Comments

Mano, check out what Sam Fullwood has to say about the death of newspapers in his column today (June 6).
http://www.cleveland.com/news/plaindealer/sam_fulwood/index.ssf?/base/opinion/1149582661265130.xml&coll=2

Posted by William Claspy on June 7, 2006 10:18 AM

Yes, I saw that. Since he asked for feedback, I sent him the links to this series of postings. My view that columnists are being rendered obsolete by the internet may not be reassuring for him.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 7, 2006 11:24 AM


"But I think that where the internet and blogs are really going to change things is with the traditional national newspaper columnists. People like George Will, Maureen Dowd, Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and Richard Cohen are rapidly becoming dinosaurs whose days are numbered."

For once, I couldn't disagree more.

The world is rapidly changing for columnists, but they aren't going away, they're becoming bloggers. And bloggers are becoming columnists (some of them are, anyway).

Some newspapers are already experimenting with hiring people to blog. Several prominent bloggers are now published authors on publicity tours across the nation on talk shows and the like. One prominent technology columnist left the San Jose Mercury News in order to start a grassroots citizen journalism website/community.

Regarding your complaints about columnists' specific personality/expertise/writing flaws and shortcomings, it's not like you don't get the same thing in the world of blogging. You get far more of that, and far less professionalism as well, most of the time. Bloggers form an extremely broad spectrum of people, politics, religion, and just about any other aspect of humanity we can think of. Some are better writers than most paid authors, some are barely literate. They come from all walks of life, and they talk about all aspects of life.

I believe you are mistaken to suggest that columnists will be replaced by bloggers for the same reason Clifton and Feagler were mistaken to suggest bloggers can't be trusted because anybody can do it: because the conclusion is based on too broad of a generalization. Bloggers and columnists are certainly seeing more and more overlap (as are journalists and bloggers), but they still differ in at least a few very important ways.

Feagler and Clifton correctly point out that newspapers and columnists have a definite added value from the editorial filtering that happens before publication (and they actually discredited their own argument against blogs by inviting you onto the show because you're a blogger -- by doing so they showed that not all bloggers are irrelevant, at least some are worth considering). It adds no small amount of credibility to the source, and that can be very valuable. A growth in blogging won't diminish the need for credibility, and editorialized publications will continue to be a very easy way to measure credibility.

Blogs on the other hand, you have to subjectively judge the credibility of yourself, often based on very limited information. It's not at all hard to find blogs of questionable integrity. But that's not an argument against blogging, that's just pointing out the nature of humanity (as represented by anyone who chooses to blog). Where blogs excel is in the breadth of material they can cover simply by brute force (with so many bloggers, it's usually easy to find at least one interested in a given subject), and more importantly the speed at which they operate. How many news stories in the past 2 years originated in the blogosphere before getting picked up by the mainstream news outlets? How many were reported by the press, but improved on by bloggers?

The sheer volume of bloggers and blog posts increases the liklihood of some of them posting something that resonates with others so well it quickly spreads to countless other blogs, and possibly further. And bloggers (as a whole, but rarely individually) can be great fact checkers. It was bloggers who brought to light the questionable authenticity of the Killian Documents (aka, Rathergate). Likewise, it was bloggers who doubted a republican's claim of "look at how peaceful Baghdad is in this picture I took last week", and then actually managed to find the exact location the picture was actually from (it wasn't Baghdad, and when he replaced the "mistaken" picture, it was a wide view of the entire city from up on a hill instead of a closeup of people walking through an intersection with shopping bags).

Blogging enables people to get the word out (about whatever they like) quickly if it's something that resonates with others', but therein also lies a weakness. Blogging also encourages a mob mentality reaction to many things, as technology pundit, publisher and consumer advocate, Tim O'Reilly found out recently, when he and his company were skewered because another company did something in their name that looked a lot like the abuse of the intellectual property system he has fought long and hard against.

And as for columnists acting as shepherds, I think you're reading too much into the commercial nature of the news industry. They have to produce something their readers are interested in reading, and that results in most media outlets trying to remain centrist in their views. The New York Times suffers a loss of plenty of potential conservative readers, as Fox News suffers the same loss of potential liberal viewers, but most work hard to earn a reputation of neutrality and unbiased reporting. The blogospher makes no such claims, and in fact is best known for filling the gaps the press doesn't. That's why the most active political blogging is primarily at the extremes of the political spectrum. There are plenty of hard left and hard right leaning bloggers, but how many have actually gained any notoriety without picking a side? Few if any.

In any case, I certainly see what you're getting at, but I disagree with the conclusion. There is obviously plenty of overlap, but they serve different purposes for different target audiences. The landscape may be changing, but the pundits aren't going away, they're just beginning to exist with wider variety.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on June 7, 2006 03:20 PM

I'm not sure I can take the comment that Friedman "occupies his own weird space" as particularly insulting, given what you have to say about the other columnists, namely, that they are basically mindless shills for a general political outlook ;). I kind of liked what he had to say in the runup to the Iraq war, though I was pessimistic that we'd be able to accomplish it (and gee, which of us was right, the random ignorant grad student or the guy getting paid to think about this stuff?) and pretty certain that that's not what the administration actually cared about in any case (though unless I'm mistaken, so was he). After a couple months, though, I got tired of reading the same column every week.

The same thing happened with me and other NYT columnists -- I had brief "love affairs" with several of the columns, but after a year or two it became clear that very few of the writers ever said anything new or surprising. True, blogs are not substantially different on this point; people being people, most of them will have a few pet topics they care about and return to on a regular basis. But I guess with blogs, there's no real penalty for changing your mind, or for expressing doubt, whereas with a regular newspaper gig, perhaps that's not so.

And then with the advent of TimesSelect, it became moot, because I'm not willing to pay any price to read the one columnist I still enjoy, nor am I motivated enough to look him up on LexisNEXIS. Sucks to be Nicholas Kristof. He had a blog, too, which was one of the things I liked about him, but even the blog is behind the wall...

Also, I would, like, pay money to the Washington Post to get rid of Jay Mathews. You're into education, so if I'm wrong and he's not an idiot, feel free to challenge me ;) but I've never read a column of his without wanting to smack him afterward.

Posted by Erin on June 7, 2006 04:23 PM

Wow, I guess you just needed a vacation to recharge your batteries, because you have come out guns ablazin' this week.

Not to stray off topic, but how should one deal with someone who refuses to accept the truth? A conservative with whom I'm currently engaged in discussion with (read: fight) says that I can't bash Bush because: he's not a criminal, did not lie about WMD's, has not broken the law (ever), and is the best hope for our country's future.

What do you say to that? I tried pointing to things like the Downing Street Memo, but I am simply rebuffed as only being able to cite the "liberal media" for evidence. I always feel like I lose the debate, but that's only because I often throw my hands in the air and give up.

Ok, sorry for the rant.

Posted by Barry on June 7, 2006 04:27 PM

Tom,

I see what you are saying. My point is that traditional newspaper columnists are granted instant credibility by their employers while bloggers have to earn their credibility every day.

Columnists know what role they are supposed to play in the newspaper and cannot deviate too far for fear of losing their privileged perch. One reason that Krugman can be more independent is that he has a great day job as Professor of Economics at Princeton.

Erin,

I have not read Jay Matthews so cannot pass judgment on him but will look out for his byline. As I said, the world of blogs has given us many good alternatives to mainstream columnists.

Barry,

Sometimes you just have to walk away. I make it a rule that once I have presented my argument and given my evidence, and once I have looked at the opposing arguments and explained why I do not find it convincing, there is nothing more to say.

I believe that all we can do is to plant the seeds of doubt in the minds of those we think are wrong. These seeds will take some time to grow and change minds but we cannot rush it. The more you try to argue the same thing over and over, the more entrenched the opposing view becomes.

Does this mean "you have lost the debate"? No, it just means that you have realized that the discussion has ceased to be fruitful.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 8, 2006 09:56 AM

Well yes, newspaper columnists enjoy an instant credibility that bloggers have to work hard to earn, and then work at least as hard just to not lose it again. But I think that's an advantage for both sides. On the side of columnists, that granted credibility makes it easier for readers with limited time and familiarity with bloggers to quickly find the information and have a reasonably good idea what to expect regarding credibility. On the side of bloggers, as you point out, knowing how hard those bloggers had to work to build the reputation they have gives its own added value and esteem that you don't get with columnists.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on June 8, 2006 07:25 PM