Drunks in the Streetlight

What makes news online


There is a theory that holds the key to success among wordsmith intellectuals is to be interestingly wrong rather than perfectly correct. Philosophy students still read the Nichomachean Ethics; budding young physicists do not bother with the original text of Newton's Principia, and economics students are seldom assigned The Wealth of Nations. Wittgenstein's truth table interpretation of the logical operators is taught in every introductory logic course, but only occasionally and cursorily is his name attached to it; his fame is due far more to his obscure and contentious arguments about, for instance, private languages and rule following. Whereof one cannot speak, Wittgenstein said, one must pass over in silence. But whereof one can speak decisively, it seems, silence must also soon follow.

This may explain why certain stories manage to stay in the public eye—prove to have "legs"—out of proportion to their seeming significance, while others expire in the crib. Was Dick Cheney claiming that electing John Kerry makes a terrorist attack more likely, or only that Kerry would respond unwisely if an attack occured? A case can be made either way, but the strange thing about this debate, as several commentators have observed, is that both candidates have long claimed that they will do a better job of "making America safer." But what could that possibly mean except that a terrorist attack would be more likely under the other's administration?

We've all learned more than we could possibly want to know in recent days about kerning, proportional fonts, and the capabilities of the IBM Selectric. Blogs of the right are now competing to find the most different proofs that the memos released by CBS News are forgeries. All but neglected in the typography tiff is the White House's odd silence on the substance of the charges. The question of whether John Kerry was recently using one of the very "assault weapons" he wants to see banned generated nearly as many pixels as the expiration of the assault weapons ban itself.

Many of these stories, of course, were driven by mainstream media, but all rose to special prominence online. And while it's often noted that blogs and online message boards are largely parasitic on mainstream media, which provide them with raw material for all that commentary and debate, the lines of influence increasingly run both ways as elite media use the blogosphere o determine where the stories are.

Stories with digital "legs" often seem to share several features. First, they all fit well into the existing narratives of an ideological community: Kerry is inconsistent and hypocritical; Bush and Cheney are fearmongers; the liberal media is credulous when it comes to stories reflecting badly on Republicans. Often they involve factual disputes, rather than the sorts of broader disagreements about principle or security strategy that we know to be intractable. We've become sufficiently polarized that those arguments are, to many, beginning to seem like a waste of time. Critically, those factual disputes are often congenial to what Jon Chait has memorably called "ass-welt reporting" (by contrast with "shoe leather reporting"): parsing a transcript, skimming image galleries of assault weapons, using Photoshop to overlay documents purportedly produced on a typewriter with the same text in Word. In short, they're stories where the average Net user can feel like a genuine participant in the investigation. That's arguably all to the good—the kind of division of labor that makes distributed or swarm journalism effective.

The danger is that they make us vulnerable to the folly of the drunk in the old joke, who looks for his keys under the streetlight, where he can see clearly, rather than in the surrounding dark where he dropped them. Finally, in each instance, at least for the moment, the debate is not wholly one sided—political partisans on each side are able to make (and are in fact attempting to make) at least some sort of case, whether it's sound or not. This feeds the cycle of rebuttals and keeps the issues alive.

It's hoary truism of politics that, while you're rebutting the other side's attacks—whether successfully or not—you're losing. That leads to the paradoxical possibility that it might be better to decisively lose a political debate than to achieve a standoff. So, for instance, it might be better for Dick Cheney to come out and say explicitly that he thinks a Kerry administration would invite attacks, or better for CBS's long term credibility if their source admitted to forging those National Guard memos. On the other hand, the alternative for both candidates to the current media time warp is to have the spotlight shining on their recent records, rather than the events of the '60s and '70s. And it's hard to imagine either benefitting much from that.