January 26, 2009
Why bloggers are more interesting than newspaper columnists
Today marks the fourth anniversary of this blog and as is my custom I want to reflect on the nature of blogging and, briefly, my own blog.
When I began, I never thought that I would write so much. I have written over a thousand posts and a million words. I also did not anticipate the form that it would eventually take, which was a cross between op-ed type essays and long form articles that I broke up into multi-part series with each episode an op-ed sized chunk. One such series of posts formed the basis of a book The Case of God v. Darwin: Evolution, Religion, and the Establishment Clause that will be published later this year and some others will form the basis of future books and articles.
But enough about me. I want to talk more about blogging and bloggers in general and their influence on the national political scene. There is no question that they are here to stay and are going to play increasingly important roles.
About three years ago I was on a local PBS TV talk show called Feagler and Friends, along with the then editor of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. The topic was the role of blogs and the future of newspapers. I predicted on the show that while there would always be a need for old-fashioned reporters and reporting, newspaper columnists like Dick Feagler himself were an endangered species because there was absolutely nothing that they offered that was not available, in superior form, on blogs.
I think it is already apparent that that prediction is coming true. Bloggers provide far more varied, interesting, and incisive commentary than traditional media columnists.
It is not hard to understand why. Newspaper columnists are usually former reporters who are 'rewarded' for their long service by being given regular space on the editorial pages. They are people who have 'paid their dues' to the industry. But paying their dues means more than merely learning their craft. It also means that they have internalized the one party pro-war/pro-business mindset that characterizes the mainstream media. They have either learned to think within the narrow spectrum of respectable opinion that requires not questioning that basic assumption or they have left the business. But bloggers are freed from going through that filtering system.
Take for example, Glenn Greenwald's take on how the Democratic leadership colluded with the administration to approve the warrantless wiretap program. The kind of analysis he makes and the conclusions he draws is not the kind that would be commonly found amongst the standard columnists because they have internalized the need to maintain a façade of fierce partisanship between the two parties, and the thought that they collude to deceive the public would not even occur to them or if it does they would keep silent. Greenwald would never have risen through the ranks of newspapers with his willingness to express such views.
This is why there is such dreary uniformity in the ranks of newspaper columnists, with hardly any original thinking or sharp critiques. This is why we have the dreary predictability and pablum put out by people like George Will, David Broder, David Brooks, Maureen Dowd, etc. What protects them is that nobody buys those newspapers just for the opinion columnists. They are packaged together with news, sports, and entertainment, and hence these writers have an audience delivered to them.
But bloggers are not packaged together with other material. They have to find their own audience. And because they stand alone, people will only read them if they are saying interesting things in an interesting way. It takes a certain kind of brashness to start out on your own, relying purely on your own ability to garner an audience one reader at a time. Since there is no percentage in repeating the same ideas that can be found elsewhere, bloggers tend to develop specialized niches where they can provide quick, informed, incisive commentary. And sometimes they become so good at it, and draw such a large readership that they get hired as columnists for bigger operations, like Glenn Greenwald at Salon, Steve Benen at Atlantic Monthly, Kevin Drum at Mother Jones, Greg Sargent at the Washington Post, etc.
But the free-wheeling, shoot-from-the-hip style of bloggers can sometimes clash with the buttoned-down ethos of traditional media. Some of the people in the bigger operations that have blogs do not quite understand this new form of commentary or the benefit that accrues from giving bloggers their full freedom to say what they think. When they try to apply some 'editorial oversight', they receive feedback that can only be described as brutal. This is what happened recently when some muckymuck at ThinkProgress, concerned about criticisms that their resident blogger Matt Yglesias had made about a group they were affiliated with, tried to soften Yglesias's message by preempting space on his own blog. Read the comments made to the intruder's post. A kind of bond develops between a blogger and his or her readership and woe on anyone who tries to get in between.
Most of the blogs I read are written by people much younger than me, some young enough that I could be their father. They write with an energy and attitude that is refreshing because it has not been beaten out of them. They have not been filtered out in the way reporters are filtered before they can rise to be columnists. Sure they sometimes use profanity. They are also sometimes wrong, of course, and their readers are quick to correct them.
But compare the errors of the better blogs with some of the columnists and you will see why those bloggers are better. I have never seen anyone as consistently wrong as Bill Kristol who has a regular column at the New York Times, and yet he continues blithely along. [UPDATE: The paper announces that today's (as usual) inane column will be Kristol's last.] Roger Cohen and Maureen Dowd have to be two of the most inane commentators, and yet they too are fixtures. They would never last as bloggers.
But the king of mindless punditry is, of course, Tom Friedman. I must admit that I am completely baffled by the admiration that many people I know, so-called 'liberals', have for Friedman. I recall a faculty member who deplored the lack of awareness of current students, using as an argument that many of them did not even read Tom Friedman's columns. He was startled when I said that I thought Friedman was a high-functioning idiot and that our students were showing admirable good sense in steering clear of him.
Gonzo journalist Matt Taibbi, one of the funniest writers around, brutally dissects Friedman, exposing not only the vapidity of his thinking and the shallowness of his research ("This is Friedman’s life: He flies around the world, eats pricey lunches with other rich people and draws conclusions about the future of humanity by looking out his hotel window and counting the Applebee’s signs."), but also his appalling writing style.
I've been unhealthily obsessed with Thomas Friedman for more than a decade now. For most of that time, I just thought he was funny. And admittedly, what I thought was funniest about him was the kind of stuff that only another writer would really care about—in particular his tortured use of the English language. Like George W. Bush with his Bushisms, Friedman came up with lines so hilarious you couldn't make them up even if you were trying—and when you tried to actually picture the "illustrative" figures of speech he offered to explain himself, what you often ended up with was pure physical comedy of the Buster Keaton/Three Stooges school, with whole nations and peoples slipping and falling on the misplaced banana peels of his literary endeavors.
Remember Friedman's take on Bush's Iraq policy? "It's OK to throw out your steering wheel," he wrote, "as long as you remember you're driving without one." Picture that for a minute. Or how about Friedman's analysis of America's foreign policy outlook last May:
The first rule of holes is when you're in one, stop digging. When you're in three, bring a lot of shovels."
First of all, how can any single person be in three holes at once? Secondly, what the f--- is he talking about? If you're supposed to stop digging when you're in one hole, why should you dig more in three? How does that even begin to make sense? It's stuff like this that makes me wonder if the editors over at the New York Times editorial page spend their afternoons dropping acid or drinking rubbing alcohol. Sending a line like that into print is the journalism equivalent of a security guard at a nuke plant waving a pair of mullahs in explosive vests through the front gate. It should never, ever happen.
The last election saw bloggers provide most of the analysis and commentary and drive a lot of news stories. After initially sneering at bloggers as ignorant and profane shouters who should be ignored, every mainstream media outlet now has its own blogs although, oddly, the sneering can still be heard.
Steve Benen argues that although the 'conservative' wing of the one-party political spectrum has a lot of well-funded outlets, they do not seem to have the people with the skills to be interesting bloggers which is why the 'liberal' end of the spectrum is largely dominating the blogosphere.
POST SCRIPT: Jason Jones goes to pundit school
The Daily Show explains why TV talk shows are the way they are.