The Howlersphere


I don't have much to say about the Newsweek hubbub that hasn't been said elsewhere. Many other people do, though, and a few of them even make sense. Jim Henley, for one, makes an important point:

The "Newsweek riots," as the warhawks are calling them, seem to be confined to Afghanistan and Pakistan. Out of the entire Ummah, only there. Not even in Iraq. No Sadrists in the streets. THAT is interesting.

As Henry Louis Gates put it years ago regarding African-American urban legends, subcultures aren't scared and angry because they believe conspiracy theories; subcultures believe conspiracy stories because they are scared and angry.

From the above I'm inclined to conclude that conditions in Afghanistan and Pakistan were ripe for an anti-American atrocity, of whatever truth-value, to ignite protest in a way they aren't elsewhere in the Muslim world. Why that is would probably be worth finding out if one's concern were that the government succeed in its aims in those countries.

Meanwhile, in the comment threads of this very blog, the mysterious stranger who calls himself Thoreau makes another point:

The MSM [sic] is being bashed for allegedly not doing enough fact-checking before going public. Fair enough, but let me ask the bloggers this question: How would a blogger handle it?

Since most bloggers don't have the same extensive contacts and army of reporters and interns and fact checkers as a typical major news magazine, I always understood that the blogosphere relies on "distributed expertise": A story starts to circulate, and as it circulates more and more people with different backgrounds and areas of expertise weigh in on it.

That's certainly how Dan Rather's memos were revealed as fakes. It wasn't any single source that persuaded me (indeed, there were a few supposedly knowledgeable people who initially said that the right kinds of typewriters were available in the 1970's). It was the sheer volume of evidence: Such typewriters, though available, were rare; no typewriter had the same combination of features; it was a perfect match to Microsoft Word; it didn't use appropriate military jargon; etc.

So my understanding is that the blogosphere's way of operating is not to sit on stories. Rather, it's to let information circulate and be exposed to analysis by many different people.

Anyway, the point in all of this is that, as I understand, the blogosphere's approach to this story would have been to let it circulate just as Newsweek did. The provocative nature of the claim suggests that it would have circulated quite widely in some circles. Some angry guy in South Asia still could have picked up on the story and started telling people, local newspapers could have then run with it, and the whole sordid affair could have unfolded in the same way.

I don't know that the blogosphere approach to reporting would be any more responsible than the approach of consulting a few government sources to verify. It would still get out.

Of course, verifying stories is not the only distributed activity that transpires in the blogosphere. As Henley notes, "these pack assaults, like the organized screamings of a pack of howler monkeys, aim to intimidate the press into an even more servile relationship with the government than it presently enjoys." That's how an affair like Newsweek's sourcing troubles gets ballooned into a major scandal, while the same mob ignores more significant stories—like, say, the Downing Street memo.

Update: In a follow-up post, Jim Henley offers an explanation that could partly, though not completely, account for why the riots were concentrated in Afghanistan and Pakistan.