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Forum: How blogging changed journalism -- almost

Chris Mooney examines how Weblogs have altered the balance of power in media and created ripples through society

Sunday, February 02, 2003

While working on this essay about "blogging" -- the increasingly influential practice of keeping a running online journal about politics, media, stamp collecting or whatever else -- I got distracted. This is the Internet age, after all, and attention spans are limited. So I turned to updating my "Weblog" at www.chriscmooney.com.

  Chris Mooney is a writer living in Washington, D.C. 

In case any bird-watching fans stopped by the site, I wrote a couple of paragraphs about spotting a Cooper's hawk while jogging through the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Then I followed up with a post on another personal obsession, "The Lord of the Rings." A reader had e-mailed me a funny graphic: An image of President Bush at a press conference that had been doctored so it looked like Bush was wearing the One Ring of Power on his left hand. I just had to link it.

Such are the basics of blogging, a quirky activity that has, amazingly enough, been heralded for revolutionizing politics and journalism.

"Will the blogs kill old media?" asked Newsweek, and at the very least, bloggers have taught mainstream reporters a lesson or two. Blogging played a pivotal role, for example, in the downfall of Trent Lott as Senate majority leader. The mainstream media might have missed Lott's remarks at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party, but outrage in the ever-growing "blogosphere" fanned the flames until newspapers and cable news took up the story.

Today the popular online service Blogger, which allows you to create a modest Weblog for free, reports over a million users.

Some of the Web's best known political bloggers -- Glenn Reynolds (www.instapundit.com), Joshua Micah Marshall (www.talkingpointsmemo.com), Andrew Sullivan (www.andrewsullivan.com) and Slate magazine's Mickey Kaus (www.kausfiles.com) have become veritable journalistic power brokers due to their large online followings. A link on one of these bloggers' sites can catapult a previously unknown Web writer into fame, or notoriety, or both.

Bloggers have been compared to 19th-century pamphleteers and to the 17th-century British diarist Samuel Pepys. They've been slammed and sneered at by mainstream news columnists like the Boston Globe's Alex Beam, and they've gotten their revenge by picking their critics apart online. The Godfather of present day blogging, it's generally agreed, is the Internet gossip Matt Drudge, whose role in the Lewinsky saga resembles the role of today's bloggers in Lott's demise.

In the past year and a half or so, I myself have gone from occasionally distrusting blogging, to being enraptured by it, to participating in it but trying to make sure it doesn't take over my life (a serious risk). I'm not the only one to convert: The Nation's Eric Alterman wrote a column highly critical of some bloggers, and was later hired by MSNBC to blog himself.

In general, I have little patience for those in the "old media" who denounce blogging as a betrayal of journalistic values of objectivity and a strong editorial process. But I also grow uncomfortable when blogging gets compared, as an innovation, to something on the order of the printing press. (Thankfully, both of these extreme perspectives seem to be growing less prevalent than they once were.)

To understand what blogging is and isn't, and what it can and can't achieve, it helps to look back over its relatively brief history.

Although scattered blogs existed during the late 1990s, it wasn't until 1999 that San Francisco's Pyra Labs created the free Web application Blogger. Originally, the hope was that the innovation would help those collaborating on business projects to coordinate and share information on an internal Web server, a kind of company bulletin board. There seems to have been little thought about the central role blogging would play in the very external media world, as young journalists, particularly those in Washington, D.C., gravitated to the form for its style, humor and pace.

Then Sept. 11, 2001, came. As media fumbled in the aftermath of the attacks, and a never-ending stream of events, rumors and paranoias fueled an insatiable desire for news, commentary and basic cathartic expression, the blogosphere boomed like never before. CNET commentator Charles Cooper even wrote that blogging "came of age" after 9/11.

These were the heady days when Instapundit.com rose to prominence, and when Andrew Sullivan notoriously suggested (in a column in the London Times) that opponents of the war on terror might mount a "fifth column." "War bloggers," as they called themselves, sprouted up everywhere. Most tilted to the political right and swatted incessantly at the left, and thus blogging became partly tied up with a critique of that classic conservative bugbear, the "liberal" media.

Though a moderate liberal, I read Sullivan religiously after 9/11. His was one of the leading voices of the day, and his blogging shaped the way a huge swath of journalists and politicos thought about what had happened. Sullivan denounced any equation of the enormity of 9/11 with past transgressions of the United States or Israel, and his arguments against a "blame America first" attitude shook the traditional political left to the core.

So perhaps it's no surprise that the period produced a kind of evangelism, as bloggers celebrated the power and importance of their new medium to effect political change and shape media coverage. Even then, however, it was clear that bloggers were at their most effective in a relatively minimal capacity.

They excelled at analyzing and debunking bad facts and weak arguments, a procedure that came to be called "Fisking" after the oft-critiqued left-wing London Independent journalist Robert Fisk. Just imagine tens or hundreds of letters to the editor attacking an editorial page column, and all of them getting published instantaneously, and you'll have a pretty good idea of the process.

In an interview roughly a year ago, Andrew Sullivan put the blogging evangelist perspective thusly: "It's a very simple idea, which is that all editors and publishers are now defunct and that direct contact between you and your readers is what counts."

But blog separatism didn't last very long. As the phenomenon continued to spread, so-called "big media" bought into blogging.

As the editor of the Web site of the liberal magazine The American Prospect at the time, I myself helped to create an anonymous staff-written political blog called "Tapped," which was modeled after "The Corner," a blog written by the staff of the conservative magazine National Review. Later the Web magazine Slate brought Mickey Kaus's blog onto its site, while Reason magazine and The New Republic also created blogs, as did some newspapers. Some of these blogs were even edited, at least lightly, which blurred one of the key dividing points between blogging and traditional journalism.

A turning point was the day that the mighty Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit began dividing up his blogroll -- a list of links to favorite bloggers -- between those who were part of "big journalism" and those who were "pure bloggers." Then Reynolds himself started to blog for MSNBC in addition to his own Web site. Even as bloggers reigned triumphant in the Trent Lott matter, they were ceasing to be full-fledged media revolutionaries, and becoming part of the machine.

That brings us up to the present. Now that we can survey more than a year of high-profile blogging, it's clear that the practice is best understood as a modest but helpful complement to mainstream journalism. Blogging has the following virtues: candor, a sense of humor, intellectual honesty (in the sense of confessing immediately and openly to mistakes), and an open-mindedness to different points of view (there are limits to this, of course). After all, the blogosphere used to be starkly conservative, and it isn't any more.

When I created Tapped (which I'm happy to say long outlasted my tenure and carries on strong), I was surprised by how readily our liberal blog was welcomed and linked to by libertarian-leaning blogging gatekeepers like Instapundit. Most bloggers, it seems, have more of an allegiance to other bloggers than they do to any particular political creed.

But as the experiment progresses, the limitations of blogging have also become apparent. Bloggers tend to form online cliques and pat one another on the back. Few of them have been able to keep up the same level of quality for long periods of time: If a thousand flowers bloom in the blogosphere, many wilt fairly quickly. And though bloggers don't claim to be objective, their personal obsessions can still become grating. For example, there's a large swath of the conservative blogosphere that seems almost entirely devoted to attacking The New York Times and especially columnist Paul Krugman, as if no other major newspaper or columnist deserved reproach.

Finally, there's the simple fact that while bloggers can be highly substantive and demonstrate considerable expertise -- some of the best are career journalists or professors -- they're very rarely thorough. Bloggers tend to specialize in putting a deft touch on pre-existing information rather than in generating completely new findings; there's no such thing as a blogging investigative report or feature story.

All of which suggests the complementary, rather than alternative, role of blogging with respect to mainstream media. The central virtue of blogging, I've decided, is that in the proverbial agora, or online marketplace of ideas, bloggers are like Socrates on speed.

They're constantly interrogating arguments and points of view, noting flaws, advancing more sound positions, and shifting the focus to new questions. The mainstream media are being watched more closely because of bloggers -- and kept more honest -- and that can't be a bad thing.

And it's fascinating to think of new directions that blogging may take. Currently, I'm intrigued by the multiperson blog www.dean2004.blogspot.com, which is dedicated to following and hyping the presidential candidacy of Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, a Democrat. It will be interesting to see what effect a dedicated cadre of bloggers may have on Dean's candidacy, and whether other candidates develop blogs of their own. Instead of a war room, campaigns could have a "blog room."

Finally, then, blogging is a modest revolution, one that we can now view with some perspective but that has not yet fully run its course.

The smartest words on the phenomenon, it seems to me, came from the USA Today columnist Walter Shapiro, a frequent blog reader. Shapiro was asked to comment on bloggers' Trent Lott triumph by the Boston Globe, and he had this to say: "Like every revolution, 'blogging' is overhyped on the way up, overscorned on the way down, and settles into the middle realm of reality."

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