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Blogs: All the noise that fits

August 19, 2007|Michael Skube | Michael Skube teaches journalism at Elon University in North Carolina. He is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for criticism.

The late Christopher Lasch once wrote that public affairs generally and journalism in particular suffered not from too little information but from entirely too much. What was needed, he argued, was robust debate. Lasch, a historian by training but a cultural critic by inclination, was writing in 1990, when the Internet was not yet a part of everyday life and bloggers did not exist.

Bloggers now are everywhere among us, and no one asks if we don't need more full-throated advocacy on the Internet. The blogosphere is the loudest corner of the Internet, noisy with disputation, manifesto-like postings and an unbecoming hatred of enemies real and imagined.

And to think most bloggers are doing all this on the side. "No man but a blockhead," the stubbornly sensible Samuel Johnson said, "ever wrote but for money." Yet here are people, whole brigades of them, happy to write for free. And not just write. Many of the most active bloggers -- Andrew Sullivan, Matthew Yglesias, Joshua Micah Marshall and the contributors to the Huffington Post -- are insistent partisans in political debate. Some reject the label "journalist," associating it with what they contemptuously call MSM (mainstream media); just as many, if not more, consider themselves a new kind of "citizen journalist" dedicated to broader democratization.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 26, 2007 Home Edition Opinion Part M Page 3 Editorial_pages Desk 1 inches; 44 words Type of Material: Correction
Bloggers: An article in the Aug. 19 Opinion section on bloggers as journalists stated that the Washington Post won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. The newspaper has not won a Pulitzer for the story.

Markos Moulitsas Zuniga, whose popular blog Daily Kos has been a force among antiwar activists, cautioned bloggers last week "to avoid the right-wing acronym MSM." It implied, after all, that bloggers were on the fringe. To the contrary, he wrote, "we are representatives of the mainstream, and the country is embracing what we're selling."

Moulitsas foresees bloggers becoming the watchdogs that watch the watchdog: "We need to keep the media honest, but as an institution, it's important that they exist and do their job well." The tone is telling: breezy, confident, self-congratulatory. Subtly, it implies bloggers have all the liberties of a traditional journalist but few of the obligations.

There is at least some reason for activists like Moulitsas to see themselves as the new wave. Last year, the California 6th District Court of Appeal gave bloggers the legal victory they wanted when it ruled that they were protected under the state's reporter shield law. Other, more symbolic victories have come their way too. In 2004, bloggers were awarded press credentials to the Democratic National Convention. And earlier this month in Chicago, at a convention sponsored by Daily Kos, a procession of Democratic presidential hopefuls offered full salutes, knowing that bloggers are busy little bees in organizing political support and fundraising.

And yet none of this makes them journalists, even in the sense Lasch seemed to be advocating.

"What democracy requires," Lasch wrote in "The Lost Art of Argument," "is vigorous public debate, not information. Of course, it needs information too, but the kind of information it needs can only be generated by debate. We do not know what we need until we ask the right questions, and we can identify the right questions only by subjecting our own ideas about the world to the test of public controversy."

There was something appealing about this argument -- one that no blogger would reject -- when Lasch advanced it almost two decades ago. But now we have the opportunity to witness it in practice, thanks to the blogosphere, and the results are less than satisfying. One gets the uneasy sense that the blogosphere is a potpourri of opinion and little more. The opinions are occasionally informed, often tiresomely cranky and never in doubt. Skepticism, restraint, a willingness to suspect judgment and to put oneself in the background -- these would not seem to be a blogger's trademarks.

But they are, more often than not, trademarks of the kind of journalism that makes a difference. And if there is anything bloggers want more than an audience, it's knowing they are making a difference in politics. They are, to give them their due, changing what is euphemistically called the national "conversation." But what is the nature of that change? Does it deepen our understanding? Does it broaden our perspective?

It's hard to answer yes to such questions, if only because they presuppose a curiosity and inquiry for which raw opinion is ill-suited. Sometimes argument -- a word that elevates blogosphere comment to a level it seldom attains on its own -- gains from old-fashioned gumshoe reporting. Compelling examples abound. On the same day I read of the Daily Kos convention in Chicago, I finished "The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle and the Awakening of a Nation," winner this year of the Pulitzer Prize for history. No one looms larger in the book by Gene Roberts Jr. and Hank Klibanoff than Claude Sitton, whose reporting in the New York Times in the 1960s would become legendary.

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