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The Blog Rage Canard

This column was written by Greg Sargent.


In recent weeks, one member after another of the D.C. media establishment has gone out of his way to depict bloggers as hysterical, angry and destructive. To hear them tell it, bloggers sitting at their computers are akin to squalling brats in high-chairs chucking baby food at their sober, serious elders — i.e., major figures at the established news organizations.

Not long ago, The Washington Post's Jim Brady lamented "blog rage." Joe Klein's latest column complained about "vitriol" and "all the left-wing screeching." Former Bill Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry recently told us that reporters are complaining they feel "intimidated" because "most of the blogosphere spends hours making them feel that way." And a CBS opinion piece recently asked: "Does noise trump contemplation in the blogosphere?"

What's all this really about? These skirmishes, obviously, are part of a much larger war between established opinion makers and bloggers, in which the establishment figures continually profess themselves dismayed by the tone of the blogosphere. It's a conflict that isn't going away anytime soon. But guess what: This fight doesn't really have anything to do with the "tone" of the blogosphere at all. Rather, it's actually about the efforts of bloggers to establish the legitimacy of their medium, and about the reluctance of major news organizations and their employees to recognize that legitimacy.

For the moment, I'd like to put aside the debate over Net-neutrality and sidestep the ideological reasons driving this battle, in order to focus on something I think is more fundamental about this fight. It's often observed that the blogosphere constitutes a threat to big news orgs. But it's not a threat only for the usual reasons mentioned — competition for traffic, the speeding up of the news cycle, etc. Bloggers are also a threat because they're in the process of making the opinion-generating profession a purely meritocratic one. And that's the real reason, as I hope to show, that commentators like Joe Klein and self-appointed custodians of journalistic standards like Deborah Howell constantly carp about "tone."

To be sure, some blogospheric elementsdo make it easier for critics of the blogosphere to toss out the "tone" red herring. I'm no blog triumphalist. There's tons of work to do. Some attacks on the MSM are hysterical and ill-considered. And a fair amount of blogospheric media criticism is marred by its own hyper-ideological nature, which makes it that much easier for the targets of the criticism to dismiss it. What's more, plenty of blogging — commentary and reporting — is just not up to journalistic snuff. Meanwhile, news orgs do sometimes show extraordinarily high standards or pull off incredible reporting feats that no Web site could ever hope to emulate — yet.

But the attacks on the blogosphere are nonetheless flawed in a very fundamental way. The criticism is often premised on the idea that bloggers are somehow offering something dramatically different from what commentators like Klein are serving up. But it's not really different. What Klein, like other commentators, delivers to readers (the column that appears in the hard copy of Time magazine notwithstanding) is words on a screen, and of course whatever sensibility, wit, analysis, and interpretive intelligence he brings to those words.

Now, all of a sudden, anyone can come along and, with little to no overhead, offer pretty much exactly the same thing. Aside from some obvious differences — bloggers sometimes double as political activists, and the idiom is different in some ways — the truth is that bloggers essentially offer exactly what Klein does: Words on a screen which are meant to help the reader interpret current affairs and politics. What's more — and here's the real crux of the matter — readers are choosing between the words on a screen offered by Klein and other commentators and the words on a screen offered by bloggers on the basis of one thing alone: The quality of the work.

Before, Joe Klein and his colleagues enjoyed an exclusive perch, one that was maintained for them by the folks who controlled the systems that, previously, were the only ways commentary and news were disseminated. One could argue that columnists earn their perches — through hard work, experience and, occasionally, talent. But once they attain their position, their status is more or less protected — both by the fact that news orgs rarely fire columnists and by the kind of de facto gentleman's agreement that has long kept columnists from attacking each other too aggressively.

The blogosphere has shattered that comfy arrangement — permanently. All of a sudden, there's no longer a system in place that allows columnists to grow lazy, sloppy, or biased without facing consequences. Suddenly it's possible to pinpoint a commentator's weak reasoning or inaccuracies and broadcast them far and wide. Suddenly, underperforming columnists, and their editors, are no longer insulated from competition — from bloggers who, as hard as this may be for established commentators to accept, actually do work that's as good or better than they do. I'd put up Josh Marshall, Kevin Drum, Digby, Billmon and others up against many mainstream columnists in America any day. Atrios — who tends towards short form and makes choices partly for political punch – has as finely-tuned a sense of what stories will be big and controversial as any news editor does. And the comparison occasionally holds up with reporters, too. Murray Waas offers purely Internet-based investigations that are every bit as good as some of what you read on WashingtonPost.com, and is certainly better than much of the investigative reporting you see by the major networks.

Yet Klein and other internet critics refuse to acknowledge this. Their criticism deliberately blurs the distinction between crappy, substandard work on blogs and high-quality work that stands toe to toe with much offered by major news orgs. The obvious subtext of their attacks is that there is something inherently wrong with content delivered via the blogosphere — it's unruly, unpoliced territory, and bloggers themselves in any case are overly emotional or have questionable motives — and therefore, everything published there should be seen as suspect. The content offered by main news organizations, by contrast, should be presumed to have validity. The blanket criticism of the "tone" of the blogosphere is driven by a refusal to acknowledge the substantive, high-quality content being offered — it's all about tarring the blogosphere with one brush. Klein blasted "frothing" and "screeching" bloggers – when in fact, much of the criticism of him was measured, well-researched, and well-reasoned.

The good news is that this effort to paper over the distinction between bad blogging and the top-notch work that's being done is failing. Right now, readers are undeniably evaluating work based on its merits— on its sensibility, wit, analysis, and intelligence — rather than based on how it's reaching them or who's publishing it. Readers see that some bloggers do high-quality journalism and are concluding that the mere fact that it's reaching them via blogs doesn't diminish the worth of that work in any way whatsoever. Readers are turning to bloggers to do what a handful of exalted columnists and their editors once did exclusively – that is, interpret the world for them. And that, not the tone or the supposedly destructive streak of bloggers, is the thing that's really intimidating to the "MSM" about the blogosphere.

Greg Sargent, a contributing editor at New York magazine, writes bi-weekly for The American Prospect Online. He can be reached at greg_sargent@newyorkmag.com.

By Greg Sargent
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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