May 05, 2002
Bloggers And 'Facts'

A common analogy for the relationship between blogging and old journalism is blogger : journalist :: parasite : host. According to this (often unconscious) paradigm, the dependence is all one-way. Newspapers and other old media provide both facts and commentary, often mixed together in unfortunate ways. Bloggers provide only commentary, and depend on the old media to feed them the facts on which they comment.

If I were a trendy professor, I would say that this dichotomy or antithesis is badly in need of deconstruction. It is certainly at best oversimple. I don't want to sound like some kind of pseudointellectual spouter of postmodern jargon (aaagh, anything but that!), but what exactly is a 'fact', and where do newspapers get theirs? I also don't want to sound like some boring old premodern professor, but it seems to me there are a number of categories of 'fact' that need to be carefully distinguished. In no case are bloggers inevitably shut out from the facts available to old journalists.

Here are some of the more obvious categories. Please put your suggested additions and refinements in the comments:

  1. Legislative debates, texts of laws and treaties, politicians' speeches. Most of these are now posted on official government websites. Even in the old days, the Congressional Record was easy enough to get hold of at the public library, even in fairly small towns. Historians have also done excellent work in making older texts available. You can read the actual texts of the treaties with the Barbary Pirates at Yale's Avalon Project site, which also includes much useful collateral information. Bloggers can use it as easily as anyone else.
  2. Interviews with politicians and other newsmakers. This is the one place where the old media still have a huge advantage, but I expect this to change. As bloggers gain influence, savvy politicians will be eager to be interviewed by them. As technology advances and bandwidth increases, it will be possible to put these interviews on blogger websites in full-color animated form.
  3. Reports from the scene of a battle, revolution, riot, election, famine, earthquake, or economic meltdown. The old media have much more money available to send people half way around the world at short notice. But this advantage is outweighed by several disadvantages: (a) The people they send are usually preening twits, who flaunt their ignorance every time they open their mouths. (b) Newspapers and networks donít have infinite amounts of money, and have been closing their foreign bureaus right and left. (c) There are a lot more of us than of them, and we are spread (though not evenly) around the world. If something exciting or significant happens in Barcelona, John and Antonio will certainly know far more about it than a hastily-flown-in Peter Jennings or Geraldo Rivera. If Sgt. Stryker gets shipped to Afghanistan or Iraq, he will have a better (and more expert) view than the vast majority of reporters. (He may not be able to give us real time reports without being court-martialed, but that's another question.) Examples could be multiplied.
  4. Reports from exotic subcultures. Old-newspaper types love to write stories about teenage heroin addicts, illegal immigrants living in caves in Central Park, patrons of S&M and bondage clubs, or even (most alien of all) people who eat at the Olive Garden in Birmingham, Alabama. Here bloggers already have certain advantages. Particularly at the New York Times, reporters don't seem to know anyone who serves in the military or hunts for sport. Just in my own linklist, I have Sgt. Stryker and Sgt. Schultz for the former, The Kolkata Libertarian and Coyote at the Dog Show for the latter. I could very easily find more, as I could easily find homeschoolers, Trekkies, Sikhs, NASCAR fans, Orthodox Jews, accountants, Mormons, quilters, etymologists, entomologists, philatelists, philologists, long-haul truckers, a hundred other categories, and ten thousand combinations of categories (Sikh Trekkies, Orthodox Jewish NASCAR fans, and so on). Other than possibly the Amish, it's hard to think of an American subculture that does not already have a web presence, and cannot be expected to establish one soon. And bloggers are usually more open-minded, where old-media reporters too often come across like Frasier and Niles Crane at a hoedown.
  5. Professional expertise. Understanding the news often requires expertise in economics, law, medicine, various hard and social sciences, engineering, computer technology, the history of various parts of the world in various centuries, archaeology, dozens of foreign and dead languages, and other fields Iíve forgotten for the moment. Name a subject, and there's a blogger somewhere who knows a great deal about it, from the inside. When newspapers need deep expertise, they have to go outside the newsroom and ask (most often) professors at the nearest university. They are at the mercy of their Rolodexes, and often get hold of the stupid or politically-slanted professors. For simple fact-checking, they send someone down to the library or more often (I assume) onto the web. We can do that just as easily.

So what exactly is it that newspapers can do that bloggers can't?

Posted by Dr. Weevil at May 05, 2002 12:07 PM