Monday, October 23, 2006

Confessions of a Blogger

My name is Doug, and I'm a blogger.

I'm even a political blogger, which in certain circles is a disreputable thing to be these days. If you haven't heard, we're rude, ranting extremists. We polarize the country, and we epitomize what's wrong with this partisan era.

So today I thought I would try humanize the image of political bloggers. I plan to tell a few stories and then pull back and take a larger view of the blogging phenomenon.

My fall from innocence

I started blogging in the spring of 2003, when I realized the New Hampshire Primary campaign was happening right outside my door. The campaign is an amazing event, because in the early months candidates are literally begging people to pay attention to them. One morning in April, I rolled out of bed, walked two blocks, and John Edwards gave me free coffee and bagels. I sat ten feet away from him and asked him why he voted for the Patriot Act.

After that, I made a project out of seeing all the candidates, and I soon realized this would make a great vicarious journey for other people. So I wrote about my experiences and put them on a web site. Suddenly I'm a blogger.

A ground-level view of the media

When you cover a news event for yourself, and you compare what you see to what gets reported in the media, you notice a few things right away. The first thing is that the news and the story are two very different things. The mainstream media has a perverse definition of news, and it gets in the way of telling the story.

I'll give you an example. The first event I covered was a speech John Kerry gave in Peterborough. Kerry spent most of an hour answering the question that I (and probably all the other voters in the room) came to ask: Why should he be president and what would he do if he were? So that's what I wrote about. (Silly me – I'm an amateur, what can you expect?)
The news in the speech, it turned out, was that Kerry had introduced a new piece of rhetoric by calling for “regime change” in America. Immediately Rush Limbaugh denounced him for implicitly comparing President Bush with Saddam Hussein. Kerry hit back by saying that he didn't need lessons in patriotism from Rush Limbaugh, and suddenly we had a nice little bicker going on. That was news. It didn't have any substance at all, but it was news.

I saw the same thing happen in event after event, but it took me a while to figure it out: News means breaking news. News is the stuff happening today that didn't happen yesterday. A campaign, on the other hand, is a story that unfolds slowly over months. And that means that the substance of the campaign is almost never news. You can't break into your broadcast and say, “This just in. Howard Dean wants to get out of Iraq and extend the Vermont healthcare system to the whole country.” That was the real story of Howard's campaign, but it wasn't news, because he said the same thing yesterday and the day before and two weeks ago. The only news in a campaign is when a poll comes out, or the candidates start fighting with each other.

Once you realize this, it explains a lot. We get great coverage of breaking news. And we get great analysis of what happened three years ago – look at all the recent books about the start of the Iraq War. But in between there's a hole. Any story that unfolds slowly over months gets covered very badly.

The Iraq insurgency, for example. There was never a moment where you could break into your regular broadcast and say, “This just in: Iraq has an insurgency. Yesterday it didn't, but today it does.” The insurgency evolved slowly over months, so we got bad coverage.

And that's why something like the Foley scandal becomes important. The real story is the corruption of Congress, but the media can't cover that, because it's not news. (“This just in. Congress is corrupt.” It doesn't work.) But the Foley scandal is news in the sense that something new happens every day. It's really a trivial story, but it provides a back door into the real story, which is the corruption of Congress.

The second thing you notice is that the mainstream media is incredibly lazy. Very often they just pass on information put together by one of the interested parties, with only a cursory fact check. Here's an example: The big problem in Wesley Clark's campaign was the charge that he had flip-flopped on the war and his opposition to it was opportunistic. For a lot of people that was the first thing they heard about Clark, and it really broke up the momentum he had when he entered the race. That story came from a memo the Republican National Committee put out comparing Clark's stump speech to some quotes from his testimony to Congress in 2002. They seemed to contradict each other. Both the Washington Post and the New York Times published an article more-or-less as the Republican memo had laid it out.

It took me about an hour to figure out that there was no story. I found the transcript of Clark's testimony on Congress' web site and read it. It turned out the quotes were accurate but totally out of context. In context, he said the same thing to Congress that he said in his campaign. There was no story. But apparently, that hour of research was too much to expect out of the New York Times and the Washington Post.

What is a blog? What have they wrought?

Enough of my war stories. Some of you may not know what a blog is. The Wikipedia explains blogs like this:

A blog is a website where entries are made in journal style and displayed in a reverse chronological order.

Blogs have had a meteoric history. The first online diaries appeared in 1994. The word blog (a contraction of web log) was coined in 1999. Political blogging begins in 2001, more or less simultaneously on the Right and the Left. In 2003 we bloggers supposedly made Howard Dean the Democratic front-runner, and by 2006 Joe Liebermann is blaming us for his loss in the Connecticut Senate primary.

What's going on here? How could something so simple as a website where journal entries are made in reverse order have that kind of impact? Part of the answer is that the influence of blogs has been exaggerated, because it's much easier to blame the blogs than to admit you ran a bad campaign. But there must be some fire under all that smoke. Where does it come from?

Let me answer that by making an analogy.
TV news is like being strapped in to one of those educational rides at EPCOT. you sit there and the information goes by. Because it's such a passive experience, people complain about TV news the way they complain about bad weather: “It's raining Jon Benet Ramsey. It's raining Lacey Peterson. We wish it would stop, but what can we do?”

Newspapers are a little better, maybe like walking on a paved path through the woods. You look closely at some things and rush past others. You have a little choice, a little control, but still, if the path doesn't go where you want, tough luck.

Reading news on the Internet is like hacking through a jungle. If you're willing to work hard enough, you can find out almost anything you want to know. You have access to encyclopedias, government databases, news archives, transcripts, video, research papers. The Internet makes a different style of reading possible. Rather than absorb a story passively, you can interrogate it. If you think only one side of a story is being presented, you can find a web site that covers the other side. If you think the President's speech is being misrepresented, you can get a transcript at You never reach the point of “that's all she wrote”. There's always more.

Different people hack through that jungle differently, and that's what a news blog is. You get to follow some explorer as he or she hacks through the jungle of information. And rather than writing a letter-to-the-editor and hoping the newspaper publishes it, you can leave a comment on a news blog, ask a question, and probably even get an answer. A popular blog can develop a little community of commenters who start answering each other's questions. The blog can turn into a collective hack through the jungle rather than one leader and a bunch of followers. My favorite news and politics blog, DailyKos, has turned into its own little news-processing town. Thousands of people post things there every day, and the original blogger has taken a back seat to the community.

So the blog phenomenon isn't just about journals in reverse order. It's about a more active, more responsive way of reading the news.

As it was in the beginning

Whenever something happens on the Internet, it's tempting to think that it must be completely new. But a lot of what we're seeing in blogs is analogous to what happened at the beginning of the Republic. Pamphlets were the blogs of the 1700's.

For the most part, early American pamphlets were cheap amateur productions. They were sometimes inaccurate, scurrilous, anonymous, and irresponsible. They could also become classics, like Thomas Paine's Common Sense. In England, Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift were pamphlet writers – Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver's Travels were just a sideline.

Pamphlets and public speaking were the two main ways ideas got out in early America. And that's why the First Amendment is phrased the way it is: freedom of speech, freedom of the press, and the right to assemble peaceably are all listed together in one sentence rather than spread across three amendments. That's because the Founders saw them as three parts of one thing: your right as an individual to launch your ideas into the public debate. You could assemble a crowd, you could speak to that crowd, and you could hire a press to print your pamphlets. Freedom of the press wasn't meant to be a special right of the Washington Post, it was intended for you and me.

The Walter Cronkite era

If today's blogs and Thomas Paine's pamphlets are at one end of the spectrum, the polar opposite is the news coverage I grew up with, in what you might call the Walter Cronkite Era, when there were three television networks with three news programs, all more-or-less the same.

It was a very undemocratic system. Ordinary people had no way to launch their ideas into the public debate. Instead, a few journalists, elected by no one, got to decide what was worth paying attention to. If Walter Cronkite didn't take your point of view seriously, nobody else had to either.

That's why the politics of the Cronkite Era revolved around people jumping up and down trying to get Walter to notice them. You can't understand things like the Civil Rights Movement or the Peace Movement or even the race riots without grasping that. It wasn't enough to have something worth saying, you had to burn your neighborhood down to get anyone to listen.

On the plus side, the Cronkite Era of journalism produced a very high quality product. If, say, something happened in Thailand, Walter said, “We now go to our man in Bangkok.” Our Man in Bangkok was a trained professional who had been stationed in the Far East for years, knew the language and culture, and had contacts in important places. Imagine you're an amateur journalist in the Cronkite Era, hacking out a pamphlet on your bedroom typewriter and running it off on a mimeograph machine. How are you going to compete with Our Man in Bangkok?

Professional journalists also had staff and infrastructure. In high school I was a gopher at a small-town newspaper you've never heard of. Even an operation like that had a full-time person who cut the paper up every day and filed the clippings. So if a reporter wanted to write a story about the new highway project, in minutes he had an envelope containing clippings of all the previous stories about it. An amateur might have to spend a week in the library assembling that kind of background information.

Another good-news/bad-news trade-off: Being a profession allowed journalism to establish standards for objectivity, fairness, and so on. But it also led to the in-bred definition of news I talked about before.

The Amateur Comeback

Two things have changed since the Cronkite Era: Professional journalism got worse and amateur journalism got better. Professional journalism got worse because the businessmen took over. General Electric bought NBC in 1986, and in a few short years most of the major news organizations passed into the hands of corporate conglomerates. Soon the cost-cutting started, and Our Man in Bangkok was the first one to go. The money that remained in the news budget got refocused on the people who make a clear difference in the ratings: superstar anchors. So today, Katie Couric makes much more money than Walter Cronkite ever did, but she delivers a far inferior product, because she doesn't have Walter's organization behind her.

At the same time, the Internet was increasing the capabilities of amateur journalists. Today, if you want to know what's been published on some subject, you don't spend weeks in the library any more. You compose a clever Google query, and bang! There it all is.

Plus, the Internet has allowed the amateurs to network, so that we can take advantage of each other's special backgrounds and talents the way that a professional organization would. I'm no expert on the Arab world, but Juan Cole is. He's a University of Michigan history professor who writes the blog Informed Content. I'm no expert on global economics, but Nouriel Roubini is. His blog reports on international conferences of big-name economists that I would never attend myself. Philip Carter is a lawyer and a Army captain who has done a recent tour of Iraq. When I want to know how the administration's policies about detention and torture play out in the field, I go to his blog Intel Dump.

When the news networks do an on-the-ground report from Baghdad, they switch to a reporter who probably lives in a hotel in the Green Zone with other Western journalists, and can only leave it under armed guard. I go to the blog Baghdad Burning, written by a young Iraqi woman who calls herself Riverbend.

Aside: For a while I was afraid Riverbend was dead, because she hadn't posted since August. But this week she commented on the Johns Hopkins study that estimated 600,000 Iraqis have died since the beginning of the war:

We literally do not know a single Iraqi family that has not seen the violent death of a first or second-degree relative these last three years. ... There are Iraqi women who have not shed their black mourning robes since 2003 because each time the end of the proper mourning period comes around, some other relative dies and the countdown begins once again.

That's the kind of gritty detail you're not getting from the Green Zone reporters.

In short, blogging has come to have the same relationship to the mainstream news media that the Linux operating system has to Windows, the Wikipedia has to Britannica, or eBay has to WalMart. Tens of thousands of networked amateurs can often compete quite well with hundreds of professionals.

Blog standards

Cronkite used to sign off by saying, “That's the way it is.” To me, that sums up the goal of professional journalism: presenting a God's-eye view. In that vision, you the viewer are passive. You trust the journalist, and he honors your trust by being objective and fair.

Bloggers aren't in that business. We aren't objective. We aren't fair. And we don't expect you to trust us. The goals and standards of good blogging are just different.

I don't present a God's-eye view. I present my view as honestly as I can. And that means telling you about my biases rather than hiding them. If I walk into an event with a chip on my shoulder, that chip is part of the story. I need to describe it to you.

I expect you to check up on me, and so I make that checking as easy as I can. That's why I link to original sources. If I comment on a speech, I'll link to the speakers' transcript. If I comment on a news story, I don't just quote from it, I link to the complete story. If you doubt my summary, go look for yourself. Be active.

I allow comments, and I respond to them. Some of my posts on DailyKos have drawn more than 300 comments. That means people are looking over my shoulder, checking my facts, asking questions. That's good. Blogs that are open to comments are more credible, and the wider and more diverse the commenting community is, the better.

In short, blogs are written for an active reader, someone who is grabbing the story and interrogating it rather than sitting back and believing or not believing it. The best blogs draw you into a commenting community, where you join the process of chewing over the news and deciding what to do about it.

That's the whole point: developing this active relationship with the news. In the blogosphere, you don't just consume the news. You question it. You research it. You comment on it. And maybe you even start going out to gather it yourself.

And ultimately, there's a step beyond that. An active relationship with the news leads to an active relationship with the world. You can already see this happening on some of the larger blogs, where the commenting community starts to turn into a community of activists.

And that, I think, fits right in with the vision of the Founders. They never meant for us to be a nation of consumers. News was never supposed to be something that happened to us, something that we sat back and watched and then complained about watching. (“It's raining Michael Jackson. I wish it would stop.”) News is supposed to evoke a response from us, and ultimately to pull us into action. That's what blogs do.
And if that's revolutionary, it's the kind of revolution the Founders might recognize.