The Rest of Blogdom


In the midst of the 60 Minutes hype, which tends to treat one corner of the blogosphere as though it were the whole thing, Virginia Postrel makes an important point about weblogs and the media:

Many of the best policy blogs have almost no media criticism, nor do they go looking for political scalps. They don't even constantly write about the superiority of blogs. That's why you almost never read about them. Reporters and media critics are bored, bored, bored by the very sort of discourse they claim to support (a lesson I learned the hard way in 10 long years as the editor of Reason). They, and presumably their readers, want conflict, scandal, name-calling, and some sex and religion to heighten the combustible mix. Plus journalists, like other people, love to read about themselves and people they know.

Hence, newspapers don't write stories about how blogs like Volokh Conspiracy elevate the debate over legal issues or how blogs like Marginal Revolution improve the public's understanding of economic scholarship. You won't read any articles about comparing the military policy discussions on Intel Dump and Belmont Club. Education blogs, science blogs, and foreign-policy blogs all engage in excellent issue discussions, but you'll never, ever hear them held up as examples of the blogosphere at work. Even Glenn forgets they exist.

Elevating the debate is not a story. News reporters do not write about the growth of good, analytical or explanatory journalism. Media critics do not praise such work. It does not get attention, and rarely wins the praise it deserves. That doesn't mean it's unimportant, however. Serious discussion does change people's minds and improve their understanding over time, and blogging has proven a marvelous source of "elevated" discourse. Fortunately, there are some great bloggers out there (many of them scholars using blogs to popularize otherwise academic debates) who don't seem to care whether they ever get invited to go on TV or whether Howard Kurtz ever writes about them.

One final comment about the 60 Minutes affair. This is hardly the first time a story in the mainstream media has been ruthlessly criticized online. More than half a decade ago, as CNN's Tailwind story unravelled, the best critiques I read of it were forwarded to me by a professor friend who taught the history of the Vietnam War and, as a result, was on an e-mail list with some very knowledgeable veterans and military historians. My friend is well to the left of center, and perhaps was predisposed to believe CNN's allegations. But he dismissed the story based on the criticism he was reading online; and, sure enough, the network eventually admitted that it was wrong.

The difference now is that those discussions aren't tucked away on e-mail lists anymore. They're more public, more widely trafficked, and much faster. And if they're partly being driven by true believers who have traded in one set of gatekeepers for another, they're also being advanced by the exceptional, independent-minded bloggers that Virginia describes. The fact that those sites don't easily fit into the Crossfire model of political debate may make it harder for the traditional media to recognize them -- but that, even more than the stonewalling at CBS, is a sign that the old way of doing journalism is being overwhelmed.