Not Saussure

December 22, 2006

In defence of remora fish and blogs

Filed under: Blogroll, press, UK, usa — notsaussure @ 11:15 pm

Via Cassilis and Dizzy, an op-ed piece from The Wall Street Journal by Joseph Rago about blogs, a subject on which he’s rather harsh.

Dizzy summarises his argument thus,

The article asserts that the blogs are not threatening the mainstream media, but are instead riding along with it, “like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps”. He goes on to say “the blogs have enthusiastically endorsed Joseph Conrad’s judgment of newspapering–“written by fools to be read by imbeciles”–they have also demonstrated a remarkable ecumenicalism in filling out that same role themselves.”

This, Dizzy thinks, is

Harsh, but probably fair for the vast majority of blogs

Cassilis concurs; referring to the sharks and remora image, he writes

Aside from the few ‘big’ blogs with good Westminster contacts who occasionally break big stories, which of us could deny that’s a reasonably accurate (if a little acerbic) characterisation of what we do? Rago does concede that we meet more success in “purveying opinion and comment” but the main focus for his criticism is the lack of quality:

“Most of them are pretty awful. Many, even some with large followings, are downright appalling. Every conceivable belief is on the scene, but the collective prose, by and large, is homogeneous: A tone of careless informality prevails; posts oscillate between the uselessly brief and the uselessly logorrheic; complexity and complication are eschewed; the humor is cringe-making, with irony present only in its conspicuous absence; arguments are solipsistic; writers traffic more in pronouncement than persuasion . .

Again there are exceptions and it’s easy to dismiss Rago as a bitter, mainstream journo who doesn’t like the competition but can anyone honestly say his description is completely off the mark? Conscious that I might be ‘biting the hand that feeds’ and insulting my few loyal readers I’m not going to cast aspersions on any other blogs – but I can legitimately criticise my own content and Rago’s comments seem reasonably fair to me. I do strive for ‘persuasion’ over ‘pronouncement’ but I’m not sure I succeed very often. Very few blogs (if any) seem interested in a sustained and coherent policy discussion – and even if that interest is there it’s often subordinate to the desire for readership and comments so the posting ends up more provocative or extreme.

And he continues,

Very few blogs (if any) seem interested in a sustained and coherent policy discussion – and even if that interest is there it’s often subordinate to the desire for readership and comments so the posting ends up more provocative or extreme. As Rago points out:

“We rarely encounter sustained or systematic blog thought – instead, panics and manias; endless rehearsings of arguments put forward elsewhere; and a tendency to substitute ideology for cognition. The participatory Internet, in combination with the hyperlink, which allows sites to interrelate, appears to encourage mobs and mob behavior

To my mind it’s ironic that two bloggers to whom Rago’s strictures can’t possibly be justly applied should be so self-critical; I think they’ve mistakenly taken Rago’s comments — which he’s clearly directing at the American blogoball (© Garry, whose Big Stick And A Small Carrot is another example to which Rago’s criticisms clearly don’t apply) — as applying to blogs, or even just political blogs, in general. I don’t think they do.

Rago opens his piece with the comment that

Folks on the WWW, conservatives especially, boast about how the alternative media corrodes the “MSM,” for mainstream media, a term redolent with unfairness and elitism.

Now, I’ve certainly seen that view expressed often enough, but it’s not a view I particularly associate with many British sites, ‘conservative’ or otherwise. Maybe that’s just the sites I read, but it’s not a general trope, as far as I can tell, in, for example, many of the Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem or non-aligned sites in Iain Dale’s Top UK Political Blogs. It’s certainly a common enough feature of American ‘conservative’ blogs (scare quotes because they’re like no British Conservative I’ve ever met).

His examples, I think, make this clear;

the right-leaning blogs exhaustively pursue second-order distractions–John Kerry always providing useful material–while leaving underexamined more fundamental issues, say, Iraq. Conservatives have long taken it as self-evident that the press unfavorably distorts the war, which may be the case; but today that country is a vastation, and the unified field theory of media bias has not been altered one jot.

That, surely, cannot be taken as an accurate characterisation of the view of many political blogs over here, whatever their politics.

This mob behaviour, as he calls it, and pursuing second-order distractions, is a common enough theme in American political blogs, certainly, and one frequently sent up very effectively by Jon Swift, for example here and here. It’s not, thank heavens, something much in evidence over here, to my mind. Spats like the recent one over Bob Piper or UKIP Home’s outing Devil’s Kitchen are pretty much the exception. By and large, it seems to me, ideological opponents tend to be reasonably civilised with each other in the British blogs. Ideological axes get ground within particular blogs rather than spilling out all over the place. We don’t, thank heavens, have our equivalents, at least in size and influence, of Little Green Foothills and their host of admirers. Nor, certainly, do we have the ideological bile.

Partly, I think, this is because our political situation is different; for one thing, over here pretty much everyone dislikes the present government for their various reasons. I don’t think we’ve had anything like the bad blood that seems currently to exist between the American ‘conservatives’ and ‘liberals’ since Mrs Thatcher’s first and second terms. Partly, too, our press is very different from the American version; over here, if we want

panics and manias; endless rehearsings of arguments put forward elsewhere; and a tendency to substitute ideology for cognition

then we certainly don’t need an Internet connection to enjoy reading them.

No one, surely, can imagine a British journalist writing, at least with a straight face, that what used to be called Fleet Street has

made itself vulnerable by playing on its reputed accuracy and disinterest to pursue adversarial agendas

or that it

has over centuries accumulated a major institutional culture that screens editorially for originality, expertise and seriousness

Our press is happily partisan, raucously so at the red-top end of the market. In the USA, the papers are dreadfully po-faced; it’s as if the BBC published everything. It’s inconceivable that a Brit, unless they were being heavily ironic, would reply to similar claims about the press and blogs here, as did Mary Moylan, of Saginaw, Mich, to Mr Rago:

Certainly there are some awful blogs; I’ve seen and read them, and most left-wing blogs are dreadful to read due to the lack of thinking skills and obscenities that pass for words. But there are enough very decent blogs that do a great job (powerline, Michelle Malkin, etc.) as well as Internet news sites (cnsnews.com, lifesite news, Newsmax, etc.) that you do a complete disservice to overlook so totally.

Your paean to the past glory of the media is misplaces, since it is their very sloppiness and bias that makes these new blogs so powerful. Would you dismiss powerline with such sneers as you write? The MSM has descended into total chaos as the new media arm of the Democratic Party, willing to pass on any lie to advance their cause. Because of that, you should cheer the rise of the Internet for that alone is holding the MSM in check and correcting their very dangerous agenda.

Rago writes, of the success of the blogs he so deplores,

Part of it, I think, is that everyone likes shows and entertainments. Mobs are exciting. People also like validation of what they already believe; the Internet, like all free markets, has a way of gratifying the mediocrity of the masses.

Our press in the UK has long realised this; as long ago as 1856, Walter Bagehot noted,

The purchaser [of a newspaper] desires an article which he can appreciate at sight; which he can lay down and say, ‘An excellent article, very excellent; exactly my own sentiments’ (National Review, July 1856).

To my mind, his complaint about the free market ignores (along with a lot of other things, of course) the wisdom of crowds. Blogs are just adding to it, joining the crowd rather than just reading the views of a small group of experts. If you mistake individual blogs for experts, then you’ve got problems, I agree. But we know better than to do that, don’t we?


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4 Comments »

  1. I think I agree with your conclusion here. Another way of putting it – any individual blog (and I include my own, and also most of the really successful, popular blogs) is largely rubbish, filled with opinion over argument, etc. But, amongst all the rubbish is the occasional insight and occasionally these get widely disseminated due to their obvious qualities. I don’t think there’s been anything in the ‘MSM’ about the Lone Mass Protests for example, but probably most of the blogs I read have linked to this (slight exaggeration).

    Comment by Dan Goodman — December 23, 2006 @ 1:30 pm

  2. Thanks for the mention and the compliments.

    Comment by Cassilis — December 23, 2006 @ 10:56 pm

  3. In fairness, whilst I did say, “Harsh, but probably fair for the vast majority of blogs.” I did also immediately follow it by saying:

    “I do think though that if you remove the noise it may not be quite a starkly put. After all, and certainly in the case of the UK, I’d say the the core actors within this theatre are clearly people who, IRL, were already working in the media, think tanks, and/or political parties. They are not ranting and raving loonies that make up the bulk of what passes for comment. They often break stories, and they certainly influence the political agenda within their respective parties.”

    So I didn’t actually concede the point that readily. In my early drafts I did try to draw more on the fact that this was about the US blogosphere which is, simply by virtue of the US size far more noisy than the UK.

    However, I don’t agree that political discussion between Brits is more tempered online than in the US. We have many flame wars too, but also we’re at least a year behind the seppos when it comes to the gorwth and influence of blog. It’s only a matter of time before the swift-boat kind of thing happens here.

    Comment by dizzy — December 24, 2006 @ 7:19 am

  4. That’s where we differ, dizzy; I can’t see something like the swift-boat thing or Rather-gate happening here so readily, or not quite in the same way. That’s because some papers in our far more openly partisan MSM would doubtless pick up on it and run much more rapidly and gleefully than did the MSM in the USA. Who needs Powerline or Little Green Foothills to get that kind of story out when they’ve got the Sun and the Mail?

    The only really significant example of that kind of thing happening here I can think of recently — doubtless there are others, but this is just off the top of my head on Christmas Eve morning when half my mind is on getting away for the holiday — is the autographed copies of the Hutton Inquiry, which, as I recall, Iain Dale first saw in the MSM, in a diary column, and couldn’t understand why more hadn’t been made of it. As soon as people started blogging about it, news editors (who do read blogs, or at least talk to people who do) realised they’d taken their eye off the ball and rapidly rectified this.

    I take your point, and maybe it’s the blogs I read, but, as I said, if you look at Iain’s top political bloggers list, we don’t seem to have anyone of the size or influence of the American political news blogs. Guido’s a sort of poor man’s Matt Drudge, but who else is there? If I were trying to get a political story out, my first thought would be to take it to the appropriate party’s spin doctors or direct to the news desk of a sympathetic newspaper or, failing that, someone like Max Clifford, rather than putting it on-line.

    As I asked in my piece, can you really imagine — nor or in a year’s time — anyone saying, with a straight face, over here that the MSM’s all biased towards the same party so I turn to the partisan blogs for an alternative news agenda? Not unless their politics are way off the wall, probably well to the left, I’d have thought.

    Where I think the British blogs score is political comment and analysis rather than pushing news agendas. Certainly they provide a very good alternative to the MSM’s highly paid commentators, but that’s not quite the same thing. Again, I think it’s a difference between the US and UK commercial media — we just don’t have heavy-weight MSM commentators who make the agenda in the way they do in the States. Who’s our Dan Rather waiting to be knocked off his perch?

    My take on it, anyway.

    Comment by notsaussure — December 24, 2006 @ 10:03 am


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