On December 13, 2001, I posted an essay on my personal weblog titled “Two Ships Passing in the New Media Night,” in which I contrasted the energetic, proletariat-embracing exultations of rising blog superstar Glenn “Instapundit” Reynolds with the dreary, public-distrusting defensiveness of then–Los Angeles Times columnist John Balzar.
I had launched my blog (or shall I say “warblog,” which is what I named it, apparently coining a term I’ve come to loathe) five days after the September 11 massacre and almost immediately found myself swept up in an exhilarating whirlwind of grassroots media creation. As a consumer, it was exponentially more edifying to me than the post-9/11 fumblings of the mainstream media’s binary, Crossfire-style opinion slinging.“What do warbloggers have in common, that most pundits do not?” I enthused. “I’d say a yen for critical thinking, a sense of humor that actually translates into people laughing out loud, a willingness to engage (and encourage) readers, a hostility to the Culture War and other artifacts of the professionalized left-right split of the 1990s…a readiness to admit error [and] a sense of collegial yet brutal peer review.”
Man, was I wrong.
Michelle Malkin, to name one writer revered by warbloggers (her site recently won Best Blog in an annual poll organized by Right- WingNews.com), is to critical thinking what Ralph Nader is to libertarianism—a very good example of the opposite. The basic scholarship of her 2004 book In Defense of Internment was cut to ribbons by Japanese-internment historian Eric L. Muller (see “Indefensible Internment,” December 2004), yet many of the same people who once trumpeted bloggers’ ability to “fact-check your ass” simply shrugged, continued treating Malkin as a trustworthy source, and saved their real journalism criticism for those partisan hacks at CBS News and The New York Times.The Culture War, which seemed to take a back seat to the genuine article in those traumatized days of late 2001, has come back with a vengeance, with current-events webloggers taking a central role in the hysterical Red/Blue scrums over Terri Schiavo’s comatose body, Janet Jackson’s exposed nipple, and the pressing national security issue of whether people of the same sex should be able to obtain a marriage certificate.
Writing in the first full flush of the warblog explosion, I predicted this: “Some clever sonofabitch out there is going to tap into the vibrancy that Reynolds (and his readers & imitators) represent, and create one hell of a newspaper, magazine, website, and/or broadcast company for the New Era. I would scrub bathrooms for such an organization.”
Indeed, someone did tap into Reynolds (and Malkin, and 70 other high-profile bloggers), in the $3.5 million, pro–War on Terror collective known as Pajamas Media. But rather than blaze some new trail, the company stumbled badly out of the gate late last year, with a site chock full of wretched grammar, incoherent design (including an embarrassing name change from “Open Source Media,” after a different “Open Source Media” protested), and much wince-inducing wannabe-journalist jargon, such as “compiled by OSM staff in Barcelona.”
Plus this bit from the “About” page: “And where faceless, ‘objective’ editorial boards once handed down opinions and endorsements, bloggers sound off, the numbers on their public sitemeters lending them unassailable credibility as voices for the rest of us.”
Not only did I not scrub bathrooms for Pajamas, I ended up taking a job for that other ship “passing in the new media night” of my original essay, the opinion section of the Los Angeles Times. So where did I go wrong?Mostly by confusing what I’d like to see with what was actually happening. September 11 did indeed lay a linebacker-style hit on many people’s political views (including my own, to a degree), opening them up to formerly incompatible or simply unknown ideas and thinkers. But instead of separating them permanently from any particular political tribe (something that I, as a longtime nonpartisan and critic of ideological warp, would have celebrated), the effect turned out to be short-lived.
The 2000 election was described by political scientists as the most partisan in modern history, with 91 percent of Republicans voting for George W. Bush and 85 percent of Democrats choosing Al Gore. Yet after 9/11 allegedly changed everything, those figures actually increased in 2004, to 93 percent and 89 percent, respectively.
Glenn Reynolds and Oliver Willis—to pick two bloggers who were often in agreement with one another in the fall of 2001—have for the last three years almost always been on the opposite side of every major political controversy, from the administration’s reasoning for invading Iraq to the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame down to the relevance of this or that public opinion poll.
Willis is now apt to give posts about Reynolds titles like “Flip Flopping Glenn” and “More Cowardice from Glenn Reynolds”; the Instapundit, meanwhile, has taken to calling Willis (who now works for the progressive watchdog Media Matters) a “paid flack.”Instead of galvanizing the apolitical truth squads of my fantasy world, weblogs became marvelous organizing tools for the most partisan citizens and groups. Blogs famously helped propel Howard Dean into a briefly viable presidential candidacy, and eventually into the chairmanship of the Democratic Party. One of the first popular books about the weblog phenomenon was Republican radio host Hugh Hewitt’s Blog: Understanding the Information Revolution. Hewitt’s previous book was called If It’s Not Close, They Can’t Cheat: Crushing the Democrats in Every Election and Why Your Life Depends on It.
In late January, Washington, D.C., was abuzz with how lefty websites such as Daily Kos and MoveOn pushed several reluctant Democratic senators to make at least a half-hearted attempt at a filibuster to oppose the Supreme Court nomination of Samuel Alito. (Sen. John Kerry and other luminaries posted directly on Kos.) And Reynolds has successfully used his blog and considerable clout to help popularize an Internet-based budget-trimming campaign called “Porkbusters,” which has at least forced Republican lawmakers to publicly confront their increasingly restive fiscal conservative base.
So what’s wrong with a bunch of human beings using technology to organize themselves into political groupings? Absolutely nothing. The purpose of enhanced freedom is to enhance people’s ability act freely in the ways of their choosing, and we shouldn’t be surprised when they choose to do the same stuff they were doing before, only more efficiently. As I argued in my first-ever media column for Reason (“Hack Roast,” April 2004), partisanship is often the most powerful fuel driving media criticism, unearthing apolitical facts in the course of expressly political acts.As with the last decade of boom-bust cycles on the World Wide Web, the only thing self-publishing has not lived up to has been the wildest and most specific hype of its most ardent enthusiasts—like me. And even if I was wrong about the transformative political nature of the post-9/11 blog explosion, the ensuing growth of the form has made it exponentially easier to seek out truth, however you define it.
But as I look back at December 2001, and prepare to hang up the blogging fun of Reason’s Hit & Run for the stodgier print pages of the L.A. Times, I can’t shake the feeling of nostalgia for a promising cross-partisan moment that just fizzled away. Americans are always much more interesting than their political parties or ideological labels, and for a few months there it was possible for readers and writers alike to feel the unfamiliar slap of collisions with worlds they’d previously sealed off from themselves. You couldn’t predict what anyone would say, especially yourself.