TCS Daily

The Blogosphere: All Grown Up Now

By Pejman Yousefzadeh - April 13, 2004 12:00 AM

Recently, two bloggers on the left side of the political divide made disgusting and appalling remarks regarding the recent death of American contractors in Fallujah. One blogger was Nathan Newman, who called the contractors "mercenaries," and "rent-a-soldiers" and said that their presence in Iraq represented "the privatization of military violence" against the country.

The other was Markos Zúniga of the popular "Daily Kos" blog, who had the following commentary:

I feel nothing over the death of merceneries [sic]. They aren't in Iraq because of orders, or because they are there trying to help the people make Iraq a better place. They are there to wage war for profit. Screw them.

So repulsive was Zúniga's comment that prominent left-of-center bloggers Kevin Drum and Mark Kleiman -- who usually ally themselves with Zúniga's attacks against Republicans and the Bush Administration -- were moved to condemn Zúniga's comments. (It should be noted that both Drum and Kleiman are generally well-respected and responsible bloggers, so their condemnations should probably come as little surprise. Nevertheless, as both Drum and Kleiman are also quite influential on the port side of the Blogosphere, it is noteworthy that they found fault with another very prominent -- and perhaps the most prominent -- left-of-center blogger).

Right-of-center bloggers also criticized both Newman and Zúniga for their insensitivity and callousness towards the contractors and their families. Another blogger -- Michael Friedman -- began a campaign to get sponsors and advertisers to remove their ads from The Daily Kos. Friedman's work helped convince prominent Democrats like Martin Frost to remove their ads, and to come out against the kind of vitriol spread by bloggers like Zúniga and Newman. Even the campaign blog of Senator John Kerry -- which once had a permanent link to The Daily Kos, decided to condemn the remarks and remove Zúniga's blog from its list of approved links.

The kind of debate prompted by this episode has important implications for the maturity of the Blogosphere. The latter issue deserves some attention as we continue to track the Blogosphere's growth and evolution as a new medium.

Much of the Blogosphere's current claim to fame, of course, has to do with its outward criticism of already established individuals and institutions. Blogs have been responsible for keeping Big Media on its toes and correcting common errors, misjudgments and mischaracterizations that have been spread by Big Media regarding various important stories and issues. Blogs have also been responsible for taking on powerful individuals for their errors of judgment. The crucial role blogs played in causing former Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott to step down from his position after making comments that were perceived as racially insensitive and nostalgic for a time in which bigotry towards African-Americans was the order of the day remains notable for all those who have kept close tabs on the development of the Blogosphere.

But the Zúniga/Newman episode shows that beyond the ability to make cogent and effective critiques of more established and influential institutions and individuals like Big Media and powerful politicians, the Blogosphere is able to do something that is at times far more difficult -- criticize itself.

Ask most bloggers why they decided to put thought to pixels in the first place, and they will tell you that they were -- and are -- quite disillusioned with the inability of certain Big Media outlets to correct and criticize other outlets for at times putting out patently false information, making fallacious arguments, or allowing ideological or institutional bias to color their reporting. Because Big Media has so often fallen asleep on the job when it comes to self-criticism, an outside institution like the Blogosphere is better suited to serve as a sort of ombudsman for Big Media. The overwhelming majority of blogs are not connected to any Big Media institutions, so it is easier for blogs to take on Big Media when it makes an error.

But while Big Media may need an outside ombudsman to fact-check it, blogs can themselves be fact-checked by other blogs. Part of this is because of the partisanship of the Blogosphere. When it comes to political issues, if left-of-center blogs make outrageous comments such as those made by Newman and Zúniga, we know that at the very least, right-of-center blogs will call them to account for it (and vice versa). Even on non-political issues of debate and discussion, one side will be useful in serving as a check on any excesses engaged in, or incorrect arguments made by the other side.

The second reason the Blogosphere is -- and can be -- a self-correcting institution is because of the diversity of blogs and the inherent decentralization of the institution. While Big Media consolidates its various outlets -- promoting too much of a "get along, go along" philosophy that is oftentimes not consistent with the need for self-correction -- the Blogosphere is made up of so many different blogs with different outlooks that the ability for self-correction is built into the practice and system of blogging. Even given the intense competition among Big Media outlets for ratings (when it comes to television or radio shows) or readership (when it comes to newspapers, news magazines or online journals run by Big Media outlets), it is rare to find one outlet critiquing another, or engaging in a colloquy with another on an issue of contention in order to advance the public debate on that issue. Blogs by contrast don't run into that problem. Bloggers are more than willing to rock the boat when it comes to debating other bloggers on important issues, even as Big Media outlets appear to engage in groupthink when it comes to those issues, and rarely engage one another on the arguments of the day.

Some Big Media advocates have criticized blogs as being irresponsible vehicles for communicating with the public because of the lack of editorial oversight on the vast majority of blogs, and because of the lack of accountability for one individual blogger (as opposed to, say, the accountability that a professional journalist might have to his/her organization and profession). But as the controversy surrounding the statements of Newman and Zúniga shows, bloggers can be and are held accountable for their comments by other portions of the Blogosphere. That, in the end, is what makes the Blogosphere such an intellectually vibrant and revolutionary method for sharing information and enhancing public debate. If Big Media had the same capacity or willingness to engage in internal debate, it would both enhance the quality of its coverage and advance the public debate in a constructive fashion. That it has failed in so many instances to do so is part and parcel of the rise of the Blogosphere. And until Big Media can examine itself with the same critical eye that the Blogosphere has, it will continue to look stale and ordinary when compared to the original -- and at times, expert -- coverage the Blogosphere can present on current events, and issues of public interest.

Pejman Yousefzadeh recently wrote for TCS about the Bush Administration becoming pro choice.


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