Saturday, July 16, 2005

WaPo: Almost, Not Quite Catching On

Here's David von Drehle's article from the Washington Post's Sunday magazine. It's 5 mostly-short pages through topics and background related to the rise of political blogging. I liked much of it, but a few items jumped out at me in the lurking-behind-the-lamppost way. I promised myself I wouldn't Fisk, but doggone it, see if you perceive the 7 offenses that I did.

I learned about the article from Michele Malkin. Betsy Newmark's response to the article is here and Barbara O'Brien's here. They'll probably all think I'm nuts.

1) From the second page (bolding mine): The two women are standing one Monday morning inside the National Air and Space Museum, beside an exhibit of Cold War nuclear missiles. Get it? They're arguing about a war while standing next to a Soviet SS-20 and an American Pershing II. They're here at the invitation of The Washington Post Magazine, because we wanted to see what happens when you pluck hostile bloggers from the ether and cause them to spend a day together, sightseeing and arguing in the nation's capital.

To me, the delayed revelation of the article's set-up and snarky aside betrays that DvD realizes how contrived it is. Either go full-bore or don't, but don't be deliverately jive, man, and then tell me you were just foolin'. That's the littlest nitpick.

2) The conversation between Barbara O'Brien and Betsy Newmark is recounted repetitively as she-said/she-said-something-different. Point for counterpoint, zinger for stinger, tit for tat... This bored me while it supported the oft-heard claim that bloggers, unlike "real" journalists, don't care for evidence, just hyperbole and opinions. The author moves on to recount the depth of journalists' fears for the fate of the world as well as their own hides, the personal backgrounds of both women and popularity of their blogs, as well as the answer to every scrivener's favorite fan question: When do you blog? Perhaps he could've asked if they prefer blogging longhand, or whether their pets ever step on the keys. Finally on the article's last page, he writes:

And you can't help being impressed by how much these women know. They know the infant mortality rate in Mississippi, and the average annual return on stocks over the past century. They know the difference between "add-ons" and "carve-outs" in the context of Social Security reform. They distinguish between libertarian and conservative with the taxonomic precision of Agassiz, and they bring the same intensity to the distinctions between the progressive and Clintonian strands of the Democratic Party. Between them, they have informed opinions on topics ranging from European unification to the 1980 NBA finals to the inner lives of cats.

Really? The inner lives of cats? Does the fact that DvD ends the paragraph with that point diminish the power of the first sentence, or is it the fact he happily lets you settle in for the article's bulk with the perception of the women as merely stubborn partisans and purveyors, albeit proudly in Newmark's case, of trivia. I'm just wondering whether the treatment of these women as tit-for-tatters first, proud mommies second, and only finally as people with a tangential concern for facts isn't purposeful.

3) He makes the general assertion, perhaps unintentionally, that bloggers aren't open to opposing views or content. Bloggers scan for bits of evidence that fit into their existing views and then generalize from there. For example, supporters of the Iraq war will notice an article that seems to suggest some progress -- an insurgent leader captured, a new school opened -- and infer a universe of good news from that piece. Elsewhere on the same day, opponents of the war might find a piece of discouraging news -- an interview with a gloomy Iraqi leader, another suicide bombing -- and infer a mirror-image universe. There is no truth, only image universes. He further confesses that Professional columnists have always been choosing tiles and creating pictures of the world. The Internet has opened that process to everyone -- and with an intriguing twist: Now we can all watch as the process unfolds.

This simultaneously portrays journalists as subjective, even extraneous manufacturers of reality while implying we shouldn't be too judgemental, since truth can't be known and we're not willing to listen to opposing views anyway. It's too much effort to untangle this relativist apologia, but I will argue that I have read this article, though I doubted at the outset whether I'd agree with its conclusions. I'm engaging with the author's premises, trying to reason in a lucid manner, but holding firm to the belief that things can be known. Stalin was a mass murderer. The Eur0pean welfare state is under pressure from declining population, revenues, and employment. The Ivory-billed Woodpecker is not extinct. We may disagree on the sequence, causes, or weighting of facts, but things can be known, otherwise we stick our thumbs up our behinds and cry mama for eternity.

4) DvD laments the threat to the tone of public discourse by comparing it to increasing Scoville units for food, and wags that he can't print without repercussions some of the habanero-hot criticisms blazing across the blogosphere. Okay, but what about the contemporary commentary of Ann Coulter vs. Maureen Dowd? Not graphically crude or obscene, but I'd argue that in print they're just as pointed. (My metaphor is stabbiness not spiciness.) Perhaps the journalistic hand-wringing seemed ingenuous after the author himself recounted that James Thompson Callender, a publisher of sexual scandal and heated rhetoric in President John Adams' day, called JQA a "repulsive pedant," a "gross hypocrite," a "hideous hermaphroditical character" and "one of the most egregious fools upon the continent."

5) The multitudes of new blogs don't last, a characteristic often used to discount them whole-cloth. Here, the lack of dedication and consistency is faulted, but sympathetically compared to the historical example of Horatio Nelson Taft who began fresh journals for three years in a row, but never finished a whole year's worth of contributions.

Now this was a man whose children were playmates of Tad and Willie Lincoln at the White House a few blocks away. His daughter, Julia, played the piano as Abe Lincoln listened wistfully. His next-door neighbor was John Philip Sousa. In April 1865, Taft's older son, a doctor, happened to be at Ford's Theatre the night Lincoln was assassinated, and he remained with the dying president through the night. If this man couldn't keep his blog -- er, journal -- going, what hope is there for dull Daves and plain Janes?

This obviously occurs and especially within the tail-end, niche-interest, personal blogs. Also, blogs that arise because of a particular event or situation get dusty as time passes and circumstances change. There's no inherent culpability in that, but it sounds a little like DvD's implying one shouldn't bother starting at all. Most importantly, here's where one of the worst features of the article makes its apparation: the repeated mischaracterization of historical writing and debate as blogging. Yuck.

6) DvD blurbs some history of American political discourse. Quite aptly I think, he compares modern bloggers, in intent if not method, to the gazetteers and pamphleteers of the Revolutionary period and beyond. But, he employs a silly device by repeatedly referring to figures like Hamilton, Madison and Jefferson as "paleo-bloggers" and the Federalist Papers as a "blog" as well as the New York and Chicago Tribunes. Just trying to get the kids to grasp the dead-tree past? Or is the logical alternative too painful to consider? That rather than retrofitting the most important political speech of its day to clumsily declare it bloggy, reason prods a look forward, to recognize the similarities and thus predict that the most important political speech of our futures will be provided and debated in the blogosphere.

7) It's worth reading his recap of national news reporting and the rise of so-called "objective" journalism which would have shocked the industry's founders. This is a big admission, though he does not decry the subsequent elevation of the title "journalist" to holy order, especially not after instructing us in pity for these selfless who carry the burden of the world's cares for half of page 3.

All told, it wasn't badly researched or written. And even if I suggest that the journalist's inner conflict slightly overtook the thing, twisting the manner of telling and his logic, I grinned at what followed his final sentence.

David Von Drehle is a staff writer for the Magazine. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at

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