“Written by fools to be read by imbeciles.”
BY JOSEPH RAGO
December 20, 2006 WSJ
Blogs are very important these days. Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has one. The invention of the Web log, we are told, is as transformative as Gutenberg’s press, and has shoved journalism into a reformation, perhaps a revolution.
The ascendancy of Internet technology did bring with it innovations. Information is more conveniently disseminated, and there’s more of it, because anybody can chip in. There’s more “choice”–and in a sense, more democracy. 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.
The blogs are not as significant as their self-endeared curators would like to think. Journalism requires journalists, who are at least fitfully confronting the digital age. The bloggers, for their part, produce minimal reportage. Instead, they ride along with the MSM like remora fish on the bellies of sharks, picking at the scraps.
More success is met in purveying opinion and comment. Some critics reproach the blogs for the coarsening and increasing volatility of political life. Blogs, they say, tend to disinhibit. Maybe so. But politics weren’t much rarefied when Andrew Jackson was president, either. The larger problem with blogs, it seems to me, is 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 . . .
The way we write affects both style and substance. The loquacious formulations of late Henry James, for instance, owe in part to his arthritis, which made longhand impossible, and instead he dictated his writing to a secretary. In this aspect, journalism as practiced via blog appears to be a change for the worse. That is, the inferiority of the medium is rooted in its new, distinctive literary form. Its closest analogue might be the (poorly kept) diary or commonplace book, or the note scrawled to oneself on the back of an envelope–though these things are not meant for public consumption. The reason for a blog’s being is: Here’s my opinion, right now.
The right now is partially a function of technology, which makes instantaneity possible, and also a function of a culture that valorizes the up-to-the-minute above all else. But there is no inherent virtue to instantaneity. Traditional daily reporting–the news–already rushes ahead at a pretty good clip, breakneck even, and suffers for it. On the Internet all this is accelerated.
The blogs must be timely if they are to influence politics. This element–here’s my opinion–is necessarily modified and partly determined by the right now. Instant response, with not even a day of delay, impairs rigor. It is also a coagulant for orthodoxies. 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.
This cross-referential and interactive arrangement, in theory, should allow for some resolution to divisive issues, with the market sorting out the vagaries of individual analysis. Not in practice. The Internet is very good at connecting and isolating people who are in agreement, not so good at engaging those who aren’t. The petty interpolitical feuding mainly points out that someone is a liar or an idiot or both.
Because political blogs are predictable, they are excruciatingly boring. More acutely, they promote intellectual disingenuousness, with every constituency hostage to its assumptions and the party line. Thus 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.
Leftward fatuities too are easily found: The fatuity matters more than the politics. If 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.
Nobody wants to be an imbecile. 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. And part of it, especially in politics, has to do with conservatives. In their frustration with the ancien régime, conservatives quite eagerly traded for an enlarged discourse. In the process they created a counterestablishment, one that has adopted the same reductive habits they used to complain about. The quarrel over one discrete set of standards did a lot to pull down the very idea of standards.
Certainly the MSM, such as it is, collapsed itself. It was once utterly dominant yet made itself vulnerable by playing on its reputed accuracy and disinterest to pursue adversarial agendas. Still, as far from perfect as that system was, it was and is not wholly imperfect. The technology of ink on paper is highly advanced, and has over centuries accumulated a major institutional culture that screens editorially for originality, expertise and seriousness.
Of course, once a techno social force like the blog is loosed on the world, it does not go away because some find it undesirable. So grieving over the lost establishment is pointless, and kind of sad. But democracy does not work well, so to speak, without checks and balances. And in acceding so easily to the imperatives of the Internet, we’ve allowed decay to pass for progress.
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