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June 08, 2006

Why I love the internet-3: How blogs have changed the pundit game.

In the previous post, I discussed that the main role of columnists and pundits was to act as sheepdogs for us, herding us into pens that limit the range of opinions we are allowed to express and be taken 'seriously.' To be frank, I rarely read any of the newspaper columnists anymore. However, since they do appear regularly in the Plain Dealer, I occasionally glance at them while reading the paper. I can usually predict what they are going to say on any given issue and the first paragraph usually confirms my prediction. There is almost never any new information or data or perspective that I find enlightening, whether it be from the 'liberal' or 'conservative' columnists. But what those columns do give me one useful piece of information and that is to tell me is what the acceptable range of conventional wisdom is, what I am supposed to think.

Blogs have changed this world of news commentary and analysis. What the internet has revealed is two important things. The first is that there exists a whole host of knowledgeable and astute analysts of the news out there in cyberspace, people who care passionately about specific issues and are willing to put in the time and effort to really study things in detail. The second is that those of us whose views are outside the 'acceptable' range of opinions defined by the traditional newspaper columnists are not alone. In fact, there are quite a lot of us, and with internet we can discover one another's existence, talk with each other, share information, and build alliances that transcend the conventional political labels.

Take for example, blogger Glenn Greenwald. Unknown a year ago, he burst on the scene with his sharp and critical analyses if the Bush administration's electronic surveillance programs. I read his blog if I want to analysis by someone who understands constitutional law and who reads legislation and other documents carefully. He has become so influential so quickly that he has even been invited to give commentary on TV shows and his book How Would a Patriot Act: Defending American Values From a President Run Amok debuted last week at #11 on the New York Times non-fiction best-seller list, powered in part by the enthusiastic support he received from fellow bloggers.

Similarly, I read Juan Cole if I want to understand what is really going on in Iraq, how events are being viewed in the Arab media and backgrounds on the people involved. I read Justin Raimondo for generally astute and informed analysis on issues of war and peace, coupled with a sharp, no-nonsense writing style. Daily Kos and Atrios are good for alerting me to news items that I would otherwise miss. And there are always Joshus Micah Marshall and Kevin Drum for commentary that is similar to that of traditional columnists and pundits but is usually much better informed and perceptive. All these bloggers link to other bloggers on specific issues.

Almost none of these people have editors checking on them to make sure that what they write is accurate. I don't know any of them personally either. So how do I know they are any good? How do I know they are reliable? The answer is their record. Blogs are mercilessly quick to point out when a fellow blogger makes an error and you quickly learn to distinguish between the people who are careful about what they write and the people who are merely glib. Of course, blogging is a fast-paced activity and errors are bound to creep in. But good bloggers respond well to having errors pointed out and you can easily tell the difference between those who make the occasional error and those who are trying to mislead readers in order to push an agenda. The deliberate misleaders, or those whose message is purely driven by ideology and undeterred by contradictory facts, end up with only partisan supporters (although there may be many of these).

While bloggers have no editors or other external quality control mechanisms like newspaper and TV and radio columnists do, they do have a far more powerful internal quality control mechanism. This is because bloggers know that the only thing they have to offer is the content they provide. People do not stumble across them while were looking for sports news, or department store sales, or comics. People have to actually seek them out. If bloggers do not provide good content, they are out of business.

I first realized the sheepherding or thought control role of newspaper columnists in the US soon after I first came here for graduate studies. In Sri Lanka as a student, I had read the sharp and incisive analyses of global politics of Noam Chomsky. Any person interested in politics there had heard of Chomsky, who is a distinguished professor of linguistics at MIT and became well known as a political analyst during the Vietnam war.

Chomsky is widely read everywhere in the world. He has been ranked in the top ten of the most cited scholars who have ever lived and recently was voted (by a landslide) the world's top public intellectual in a poll conducted by Prospect and Foreign Policy magazines. (See Robin Blackburn's article for why he deserves this recognition.)

But when I came to the US for graduate studies in the late 1970s, I found him to be completely absent from the mainstream media here. In order to read his take on current events, I had to go to the library and read newspapers and magazines from other countries. What was even more surprising to me was that many people in the US had not even heard of Chomsky.

I now know why. Chomsky had made the cardinal 'error' of going outside the boundaries of acceptable thought. He had argued that the Vietnam war was an act of aggression by the US against that country, with the aim of making sure that that country's economy was destroyed along with its socialist program of trying to provide education and housing and health to all its citizens. Such a good example, he argued, would be tempting for other developing nations to follow and thus dangerous to US business interests. This view went against the conventional view that Vietnam was a well-intentioned attempt to prevent the spread of Communism, taken on behalf of the Vietnamese people with their best interests in mind.

Chomsky has proceeded to elaborate on his analyses, arguing that the mainstream consensus idea of US foreign policy being benevolent in intent but undermined by incompetent execution or events beyond its control is a myth, and that its foreign policy is governed by ruthless self-interest on the part of a small group of US elites, carried out mercilessly, and dependent for its success on keeping the vast majority of American people in the dark about their true intentions. Controlling the range of debate and opinions in the mainstream media is an important tool towards achieving this goal. For stepping outside the mainstream consensus, and showing how that fraudulent mainstream consensus is created, he was banished from the op-ed pages of US newspapers and his articles could not be found in US mainstream magazines. (See the book Manufacturing Consent by Chomsky and Edward Herman (professor of economics at the University of Pennsylvania) for a sharp analysis of how the media functions.)

Whether you agree with Chomsky or not, there is no denying the fact that he does his research and can back up his claims with historical facts, actual data, and clear, logical reasoning. And yet Chomsky cannot be found anywhere in the mainstream media in the US while fact-free ranters of the Ann Coulter variety seem to be all over the place. If that is not in itself a good reason to celebrate the death on establishment punditry, I don't know what is. (See here for the kinds of things that Coulter says.)

Despite this shunning by the mainstream US media, Chomsky's prolific output and seemingly unlimited energy enabled him to become one of the world's most influential intellectuals. But in pre-internet days, he was a rare exception, like I. F. Stone. But with the internet, it will not be as hard for people with similar ideas to reach an audience. The internet no longer allows for the kind of thought policing that Chomsky experienced and that is why I think blogs will drive traditional media columnists out of business. They have become redundant.

I for one will not miss them.

POST SCRIPT: Man mauled by lioness

Here's a disturbing story:

A man shouting that God would keep him safe was mauled to death by a lioness in Kiev zoo after he crept into the animal's enclosure, a zoo official said on Monday.

"The man shouted 'God will save me, if he exists', lowered himself by a rope into the enclosure, took his shoes off and went up to the lions," the official said.

"A lioness went straight for him, knocked him down and severed his carotid artery."

This is the kind of tragedy that happens when people take the Bible and god too seriously. This unfortunate person probably had read the story in the Book of Daniel (chapter 6) where some enemies of the god-worshipping Daniel trick the king into throwing him overnight into the lion's den. The Bible says that god closed the mouths of the lions to prevent harm coming to Daniel. The next morning, the king finds Daniel unharmed and, on discovering that he has been tricked into endangering him, is enraged at the people who had tried to use him to destroy Daniel:

At the king's command, the men who had falsely accused Daniel were brought in and thrown into the lions' den, along with their wives and children. And before they reached the floor of the den, the lions overpowered them and crushed all their bones.

This story is one of the many Biblical stories that, although the ostensible point of it is to show god in a good light by demonstrating his power and responsiveness to those who worship him, actually creates even more problems for those who believe in a benevolent god. Why didn't god (like he did with Daniel) protect the wives and children who, after all, were not accused of any wrongdoing (even assuming that you like the idea of a god who approves of wrongdoers being torn apart by lions)?

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Comments

The person killed by the lion obviously missed the passage that said, "Thou shalt not test the Lord thy God" (I think this is in multiple gospels but I don't recall exactly where. The story was about Jesus being asked to prove he was God by performing some miracle on demand - flying, maybe?)

Posted by Shruti on June 8, 2006 09:50 AM

How exactly can you tell whether a blog has only partisan supporters? Is there a viewpoint-neutral way to do this? I confess I don't know too many people with strong political views who are able to see the partisans on their own side of the fence, and those people are usually not reading the blogs on the other side of the fence, unless to disparage them...

Posted by Erin on June 8, 2006 10:39 AM


I'm still not convinced that the media pundits intentionally define the boundaries of acceptable debate, so much as reflect the boundaries of moderate/centrist views, simply as an artifact of their commercial nature (this in turn, reinforces those boundaries to an extent, but I still consider that an effect, not a cause). The internet just gave voice to a wider range of views.

In Chomsky's case, it sounds like his views were well outside those of much of the US at the time. It painted the US as the bad guys in a selfish and unprovoked attack during a time in which almost the entire US population feared a communist attack/takeover. The conventional war may have been cold, but the propaganda war was going strong, and quite effectively.

It seems analogous to somebody coming out today and trying to seriously suggest to a US audience that terrorists are right to attack us, and we should cut them a break. Even if that could be defended as I'm sure Chomsky could defend his views, the view isn't going to get far in the US because it simply won't resonate with readers. It goes too strongly against their world view, and suggests we shouldn't be defending what we perceive to be in our interest. Some ideas may gain traction while doing one of those, but both seems an unsurpassable hurdle.

Chomsky may well have been right in his assessment of the situation in Vietnam (I genuinely don't know, and am not trying to take a side on that), but it just stood so little chance of being palatable to an American audience at the time, that it doesn't seem logical to blame pundit censorship for it.

Posted by Tom Trelvik on June 8, 2006 11:52 AM

That postscript reminds me of a sign I saw a man holding across the street from the local movie theater yesterday. It read:

I love the Lord Jesus Christ. I reject The Da Vinci Code.

It's almost like people have been so saturated with lies that they can't even distinguish a work of fiction from an "attack" on Christianity (or [insert the concept of choice here]).

Posted by Nicole Sharp on June 8, 2006 12:01 PM

Shruti,

The passage you are referring to is when Jesus was spending forty days in the wilderness and was being tempted by the devil. One of the temptations is described in Matthew 4:6-7 where the devil takes Jesus to the top of the temple steeple and asks him to throw himself down because god will protect him from hurt but Jesus refuses to do it, saying "Thou shall not put the Lord your God to the test."

Religious believers often use this to explain why scientific studies invariably fail to show any benefits for prayer, etc. Nobel prize-winning physicist Steven Weinberg likes, in public forums, to challenge god to strike him down with lightning to prove that he is wrong. Weinberg has not been struck yet but his detractors claim that god resists such tests.

Erin,

When bloggers refuse to see the complexity of issues, and at least recognize the existence of alternative views (even if they disagree with them), then they are appealing only to those whose minds are made up.

All of us are partisan to some extent, and the sites I quoted are no exception. The question is whether they are ONLY partisan. The way I judge this is whether they apply the same reasoning and principles to an issue irrespective of who it concerns. For example, one reason I like the site antiwar.com and its columnist Justin Raimondo is that they took a consistent antiwar, anti-imperialist stand from their inception, criticizing Clinton's involvement in Kosovo and Bush's adventures all over the place.

This can be contrasted with those whose position on any issue seems to be predicated on who is advocating any position.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 8, 2006 12:02 PM

Tom,

The question is why some ideas "won't resonate with readers." The whole point of the analysis in his book with Herman is to show how a consensus is "manufactured" so that it seems perfectly reasonable to label certain people and views as unpalatable and thus exclude them from the debate.

The decision for or against exclusion should be based on whether a case, supported by evidence and reasoning, can be made for a postion or whether it is just ranting.

My point is that the media gatekeepers have narrowly defined the allowable limits by what seems acceptable to them. It is for such reasons that serious criticisms of case for the attack on Iraq, and skepticism of the statements of the administration, were not widely available before the war. If they had been, we might have been spared the mess that currently exists.

The internet is breaking that monopoly.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 8, 2006 01:02 PM

Mano, I agree with Tom. It doesn't seem logical to blame censorship for it. It somehow implies that "the media" is a person that directly censors what is written and that's just not the case.

If anything it is public opinion that censors itself. Media is a huge $$ industry. The industry gravitates toward what sells and shies away from what doesn't. This has always been the case. It is an industry, it is about making money, and if we ever thought that media was about spreading knowledge and truth someone had us deeply fooled.

I always get upset when I hear someone say "the media" or "media gatekeepers", suggesting it is a group of 3 or 5 or 10 people that make decisions about everything printed across the country. The media is made up of thousands of papers, many more thousands of people writing.

Imagine (this shouldn't be too hard) the conservative right accusing "higher education" and "information gatekeepers" (professors) of liberal bias and purposely trying to implant their personal beliefs into students. It is not the truth and it is just is not that simple. There are many universities and thousands of professors and each one is different.

I think your point is still valid about the internet, that it makes it easier for dissention to be heard and dissenters to group together. But I disagree with your concept of censorship.

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on June 8, 2006 09:08 PM

Tom and Aaron,

Actually, I wasn't making the case that there are a few people deliberately controlling what gets in the media. The more sophisticated analyses of how the media works (something that I have been planning to write about for some time) show that the very structure of big media necessarily results in certain filters coming into being that result in people who have a remarkable similarity of views ending up in the decision making roles. Only people who have internalized the values of the corporations they work for will rise to prominent positions in them. You don't have to tell them what to do or say, because what they believe largely coincides with what the nterests of the corporations are. It would be impossible for journalists to wilfully go against their own beliefs on a daily basis. They would go crazy.

As I said, the media has been looked at carefully by people like Ben Bagdikian (The New Media Monopoly), Robert McChesney (The Problem of the Media), and Chomsky and Herman (Manufacturing Consent) who have argue very persuasively how public consensus comes about and how contrary views to that consensus are marginalized.

What I have written is far too brief and superficial to be convincing. I will write in more detail later but reading the above books is well worth it for anyone seriously interested in how the media has come to be what it is.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 9, 2006 08:18 AM

Aaron,

One other point. Your comparison with universities is apt. The universities too have filters. Anyone who ends up as a professor is likely to value research and believe that even arcane knowledge has intrinsic value. Someone who believed that research is a waste of time or that education is of little value is unlikely to be found in universities. They would have been 'filtered' out very early in the game. Similarly, journalists who hold strong views contrary to their corporate owners get filtered out early on. Only those who agree with it will rise in the structure.

The difference between institutions like universities and big media (and it is a HUGE difference) is the role that profit making plays. And it is this distinctivce feature that all the analyses I mentioned take into account.

Posted by Mano Singham on June 9, 2006 08:23 AM

Thank you for the clarification Mano. I look forward to reading your dissection of the media. One reason I think media is so powerful is that nearly everyone underestimates its influence.

Posted by Aaron Shaffer on June 9, 2006 02:46 PM