September 27, 2004

STEVEN LEVY calls bloggers "a nation of ankle-biters." (What's next? Cracks about pajamas?)

But he also misrepresents the quote of mine that he uses. The quote is: "The basic system where we talk about facts and policies is broken."

I said that, but as part of explaining why the media-criticism aspect of blogging is so important, and not just raucous hackery as he suggests. I didn't -- as he makes it appear -- suggest that bloggers' partisanship makes serious discussion of issues on blogs futile. Rather, I was arguing that you can't have a serious discussion of issues in the society at large, when so much of Big Media is partisan and dishonest, and that this is why it's so important to point out the dishonesty and try to make things better, which is what I see bloggers doing.

Levy, however -- though in our interview he said he thought that bloggers' emphasis on Trent Lott's racial remarks was fine -- was very unhappy about my emphasis on Kerry's now-admitted misrepresentations about having spent Christmas in Cambodia in 1968, and he also makes that clear in his piece. (He also seems upset that bloggers have spent so much time on RatherGate. Yeah. I've also blogged a bit on Darfur, but never mind that.) In his opinion, I should be blogging on health care. Maybe I would be, if Big Media covered things like the Cambodia story honestly, as it did not. (Even now, Levy doesn't mention the Kerry campaign's admission that he wasn't there.) Indeed, as I wrote back when the Cambodia issue was hot, "the press -- and this, to me, is the most interesting and disturbing part of the story -- has been shamelessly covering for Kerry." That seemed like a big deal to me, and still does. Follow the link to read much more on that subject.

I've always thought well of Levy, and I'm sure that he didn't intend to misrepresent my meaning. But -- as is so often the case with Big Media folks -- he came in to the interview with his storyline predetermined, and he put things into that mold whether they fit or not. (It also, as always, makes me wonder where else this is happening without my noticing it.)

And, sadly, that -- together with the condescending notion that bloggers are "biting the ankles" of their betters -- says it all about what's wrong with Big Media today. Levy's disappointed in the blogosphere. But I'm disappointed in Levy, and much of his profession.

UPDATE: Hugh Hewitt: "In a column complaining about snarkiness, what's with the 'ankle-biter' stuff?"

ANOTHER UPDATE: A better cautionary note for bloggers can be found here.

MORE: Levy sends this email:

Well, I knew you wouldn't be on board with my take. But I don't feel I took you out of context. What you said you meant was excactly the context I intended--that the system itself was broken. If it came out to your eyes that I was trying to put some other implication, that's my failing. (But on rereading it, it seems clear to me. Maybe it's a block.) My belief is that by and large, the blogosphere hasn't lived up to its potential to work in some way to improve the system. I meant it when I said there was good stuff to find out there.

I love reading blogs, but wanted to make a point, even knowing that I'd get whacked by bloggers. But that's part of the open marketplace of ideas that I do fully support. I'm not saying that people shouldn't be as free to say whatever they hell they want but--as the last graph concluded--this is one more example of the larger phenomenon that just because something's on the Net it doesn't mean we're instantly free of the problems we have offlline.

What I would really love is if when someone who writes on dead trees criticizes something on computer screens, the knee jerk reaction isn't "No wonder he's griping, he's just a terrified/embittered/envious old media guy." Please.

Well, that's sure how I read it, though I suppose it may have been meant differently. (At the risk of blogger triumphalism, note how easily I add Levy's response here, while mine is not available on the Newsweek site. . . .).

But I think the piece was quite unfair. There's a useful cautionary tale for bloggers to be written, but that piece absolutely wasn't it. Let me add a few points on why.

Levy writes:

While bloggers have been true to their promise to "fact-check Big Media's a--," their motives are often fiercely partisan. Name-calling and intolerance of opposing points of view have reached epidemic levels on Web logs.

Hmm. Motives are in the eye of the beholder, I suppose, but if they encourage people to fact-check, isn't that good? And there wasn't partisanship involved in CBS's decision to run with the bogus Rather memos, or AP's "fake boos" story, or the burying of the (admittedly true) Cambodia story, or. . . Well, you get the picture. The difference with blogger partisanship is that it's open.

As for name-calling, well, the only blog Levy used as an example was InstaPundit, and I'm not a big name-caller -- though anyone who refers to bloggers as "ankle biters" has limited standing on this subject. Levy continues:

Judging by its dominance in the blog world (I'm talking about the civic sector here, not the countless blogs on other topics or people's personal lives), you'd think that Rathergate was bigger than Watergate, Iraq and Britney's putative wedding combined.

Hmm. Well, I don't blog much about Watergate it's true, but then it was 30 years ago. (And Britney got married? Why wasn't I invited?) But is Rathergate bigger than Watergate? Well, one involved a corrupt attempt to swing an election through dishonest means, and, er, so did the other. . . .

And RatherGate isn't bigger than Iraq, but neither is the blogosphere. I'm sure that I, and most other bloggers, devoted a smaller fraction of our annual output to Rathergate than Levy did, with this one column, to the blogosphere.

Besides, the whole point of having a blog is to write about what you think is important, as opposed to what somone else thinks is important. Don't like it? Start your own blog and write about your favorite topics.

Levy goes on:

We were promised a society of philosophers. But the Blogosphere is looking more and more like a nation of ankle-biters.

Er, what part of "fact-check your ass" sounded like it was promising a society of philosophers?

It seems to me that the big complaint here is that blogs are angrily pointing out the flaws of Big Media, instead of existing in an insulated parallel world in which they, well, philosophize. I guess I can't argue with that, exactly, but I don't know who ever promised the latter. It wasn't me.

All I've suggested is that blogs, regardless of their imperfections, are more honest than Big Media. And there's nothing in the column that refutes that.

As for stereotyping print guys who dis blogs, well, yeah, I guess we should try not to do that. It's just that, well, the attacks on blogs seem to fit a pattern. And the "ankle biters" line didn't exactly break the mold.

I'd be happy if Big Media were as fair, and honest, and capable, and superior to the works of people like me as its practitioners pretend. But it's not. And I don't think that it's "partisan" or rude for bloggers to keep pointing that out.

STILL MORE: Reader Allen S. Thorpe emails:

What I find really annoying in these attacks on bloggers is the implication that journalists aren't "often fiercely partisan." Somehow these jerks have convinced themselves that they are being objective and even-handed when they press stories like the forged memos and the renewal of the draft. Are they really so cut off from reality that they can't see their own partisanship?

There was another blurt like this today at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune
calling bloggers "like ticks to elephants" and stating that "Most bloggers are not fit to carry a reporters' notebook."

It wasn't the bloggers who claimed to be superior to the rest of humanity, after all. All they did was point out that the emperor had no clothes. These sanctimonious "journalists" don't seem to realize how absurd they look to those who don't spend all their time in the company of other journalists. It is looking less and less like a profession and more like a form of brain damage.

It's not brain damage, but insecurity, coupled with the effect of the cocoon. As reader Brian Rogge emails: "The first step to recovery is realizing the problem exists. Mr. Levy doesn't sound like he's there yet."

Meanwhile, James Lileks has many useful thoughts and observes:

Put it this way: there are thousands of news junkies out there doing research and analysis for free. In their spare time. For fun. It would kill us to listen? After all, if the Rathergate tale taught us anything, itís that ordinary people could blow ten-foot holes in the Good Ship CBS simply by comparing their knowledge to the manifest ignorance of the news divisionís producers. Because Iíll tell you this about "ordinary" people: they know stuff.