Fall 2003

Determining the Value of Blogs

‘Without, say, the imprimatur of The New York Times, a blogger has only his or her reputation to recommend the work ….’

By Eric Alterman

When I began blogging for MSNBC.com in May of 2002, I wrote what I considered to be a reasonable-length introductory column. But as I was unused to the format, I did not realize that I was beginning with a faux pas, failing to adapt to my new medium. One generally friendly blogger liked what I had to say, but thought it went on at such inexcusable length he compared it to Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.” Looking back on it today, I’m rather glad I did it. After all, how often do you hear the words “Marcel Proust” and “Eric Alterman” in the same sentence these days? Not often enough, I say. Anyway, here is a portion of what I had to say back then:

“Blog. Blogorrhea. Blogosphere. Blogistan. Blogdex. Blogrolling. Warblogging. Where it will all end, knows God! I wish someone had gotten to the naming committee before this whole movement got rolling. I hate the word ‘blog,’ but I like the format, particularly as a writer. (What’s not to like?)

“Even if I could somehow get used to the word, one problem with blogs remains definitional. It’s hard to know exactly what qualifies. Is Matt Drudge a blogger? Is Jim Romenesko? Are the mysterious folks at Mediawhoresonline.com? I dunno. Does it matter? John Hiler of Microcontent News asks, ‘If all bloggers followed a journalism code of ethics, their blogs would be objective and edited … but would they still be blogs?’ In his proposed Code of Ethics for Amateur Journalism, he argues, ‘Weblogs are inherently biased and unedited.’ Scott Rosenberg proposed in Salon.com that ‘the editorial process of the blogs takes place between and among bloggers, in public, in real time, with fully annotated cross-links.’

“Well maybe then Altercation ain’t a blog. I have an editor. This is in part because I want one and in part, I imagine, because the good folks at MSNBC.com do not entirely trust me without one. Editors are a pain, but they have saved me from approximately a million embarrassing mistakes. I’m sure I will make a bunch even having one, but I’m happy to admit that www.Altercation.msnbc.com will be edited by those folks whose initials appear in the middle of the address.

“To tell the truth, as someone who has benefited from editors’ suggestions for more than 20 years, I don’t even get the contrary argument. The biggest problem great writers face is when they think they get to be too big to be edited. Have you read the last book by David Halberstam? I didn’t think so. Have you seen the new Star Wars? Here’s what Stephen Hunter wrote in The Washington Post, I think quite accurately. ‘Memo to George Lucas: Hire an editor, bud. You’re a great man. So what? You still need an editor. Everybody needs an editor, and nobody needed an editor more than the writer-director of this film.’ Well, if George needs one, who am I …?”

Evaluating Blogs

The issue to which I tried to address myself that day is the same one that preoccupies me now. What is the role of “truth” and “evidence” in our contemporary political and cultural debate and discourse, and do blogs help or hurt its case? On the one hand, Weblogs are quite obviously a net negative. Just as bad money forces out good, so too does bad information. Because blogging requires no credentials whatever—not even the judgment of an editor or personnel resources person—absolutely anybody with access to a computer can do it. That means a vast increase in the net amount of crap swirling around out there, unedited, unchecked and largely untrue. Without, say, the imprimatur of The New York Times, a blogger has only his or her reputation to recommend the work, and the very nature of the beast seems to encourage carelessly conceived statements and baseless charges. Now that blogging appears here to stay, it is even harder and harder for amateurs to sift through the morass of information available to them each day and decide what to believe. Matt Drudge brags that he is 80 percent accurate. Well, that 20 percent can do an awful lot of damage.

But the value of blogs is the flipside of their downside. In the world of journalism, an awful lot of what is both true and important is overlooked for a variety of reasons, many trivial, a few not. The concentration of media ownership and increasing conservatism of so many journalistic institutions open up a crying need for alternative sources of information and opinion that cannot find a home elsewhere in the media. When inventive blogging is combined with the self-discipline of journalism—as, say, in Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo, it can significantly advance our knowledge and put pressure on journalists to do a better job with their own reporting and evidence.

But it is not only the journalists. During the Trent Lott brouhaha, the anonymous liberal blogger Atrios did an amazing job of finding documents from Lott’s past that continued to keep the story alive as they simultaneously broadened our understanding of its larger implications. I’m sure a number of such examples can be found in the blogosphere’s short history. The problem, per usual, is sifting the wheat from the dross.

Ideally, I think every blogger would benefit from having an editor—and from knowing a little bit about the way journalism is produced (and conceived). As that seems awfully unlikely, we will have to settle for everyone—journalists included—learning a little bit more about blogging. I know my own work, both as a journalist and a historian, is a great deal richer for it. At least that’s what my editors tell me.

Eric Alterman writes the “Stop the Presses” column for The Nation and the Altercation Weblog (www.altercation.msnbc.com) for MSNBC.com. An adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University and a senior fellow of the World Policy Institute, he is the author, most recently, of “What Liberal Media? The Truth About Bias and the News” (Basic Books, 2003).


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