The Internet is irritating the liberal establishment.
There's a simple, predictable reason for this: It's awash in uncontrolled speech and unedited squibs of the haphazard kind that people might just prefer to the pigeonholed blurbiage of mainstream--printed--newspapers and magazines.
Obviously, this could be disastrous for the left's carefully combed and bowdlerized opus of ideals served up daily on the gray pages of nearly every big-city newspaper in the country. The Internet is a chaos of heterodoxy. It is a place where you can disseminate dangerous notions.
And people are doing just that. What people? Well, the vast right-wing conspiracy, of course. You remember them? All of repentant Clinton basher David Brock's former friends. They're alive and well on the Web.
They're writing Web logs, or "blogs." Also called "me-zines," these vanity sites are proliferating at an alarming rate and attracting substantial daily readership. One of the most popular such sites, andrewsullivan.com, written by the eponymous pundit and former New Republic editor, gets about 35,000 hits, or visits, a day. Another, InstaPundit.com, run by University of Tennessee law professor Glenn Reynolds, just reported a record 43,000 visits in one day. A year ago, it was almost unknown. Meanwhile, author and former New Republic writer Mickey Kaus' irreverent Kausfiles.com is equally popular while serving up a sharp reality check on the accepted blather.
There are, of course, blogs of all persuasions on the Net, but the stars of the genre tend to tilt right of center. This is understandable, given the leftward swing of the mainstream press. The Web is an outlet for ideologically homeless opinion-mongers, and the smart ones are using it. Their audience? Readers and viewers who are hungry for alternative points of view.
Most blogs are running commentaries on the day's events. They feature links to noteworthy articles from publications around the world, the Jerusalem Post to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Readers get the blogger's take on the issues and then can read the relevant news items for themselves. Best of all, the bloggers often critique the way the news is reported, exposing subtle biases in language or filling in conspicuously omitted facts. Kaus and Sullivan do this especially well.
This may be exactly the reason why they and their fellow bloggers are making enemies fast. They're touching a nerve.
The Boston Globe's Alex Beam, for example, wrote derisively of the genre in a recent column: "Welcome to Blogistan, the Internet-based journalistic medium where no thought goes unpublished, no long-out-of-print book goes unhawked and no fellow 'blogger,' no matter how outre, goes unpraised."
Eric Alterman wrote in the Nation: "While [Sullivan's] site arouses a certain gruesome car-wreck fascination, it serves primarily as a reminder to writers of why we need editors. [It] sets a standard for narcissistic egocentricity that makes Henry Kissinger look like St. Francis of Assisi."
Why are Web logs so infuriating to their shrewish detractors? Is it really the narcissism? Or is it the political opinions being expressed? Ask yourself this question: If Palestinian intellectual Edward W. Said were blogging, would Alterman and Beam be calling him a navel gazer? Or would they praise his brave alternative point of view and complain that the mainstream press is too conservative?
Web logs are infuriating because they are thoughtful alternatives to the self-important New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post and their toady satellites, much of whose reporting has become hardly less biased than the bloggers'. Bloggers at least have the honesty to admit their biases up front. They don't pretend to be objective.
But they do provide a healthy criticism of the liberal establishment's hopelessly arrogant monotone. What's more, they make news interactive, so that we can all stop yelling at the television and actually do something. Readers can opine, as well as argue, grapple or exchange expletives with their host. That's something you'll never get in print.
As one popular blogger, Minneapolis Star Tribune columnist James Lileks (lileks.com), put it: "The newspaper is a lecture. The Web is a conversation." Amen.
Norah Vincent is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after Sept. 11 to study terrorism.