In Defense of Bloggers

There are many problems with the Internet, and Bill O'Reilly (search) isn't the first to point them out.

I'm afraid that he badly misfired, however, when his recent criticism of the web, he conflated a number of different problems, smushing together serious issues, and even crimes, with minor irritations. In addition, he betrays a serious lack of knowledge about the nature of the medium. I'm going to ignore the fact that he lumps webloggers who "don't work for anybody" into the same "sewer" with child pornographers and pederasts, and just focus on this bit:

"Today's example comes from Web sites that picked up a false report from The San Francisco Chronicle that said a San Francisco radio station dropped The Radio Factor (search). If anyone had bothered to make even one phone call, they would have learned that Westwood One made a deal with another San Francisco radio station, weeks ago to move The Radio Factor. Thus the word "dropped" is obviously inaccurate and dishonest. We'll see if The Chronicle runs a correction, but you can bet you won't be seeing many corrections on the net.

The reason these net people get away with all kinds of stuff is that they work for no one. They put stuff up with no restraints. This, of course, is dangerous, but it symbolizes what the Internet is becoming."

Let us parse this. He leads off by criticizing "Web sites" (by which I suspect he means web logs) for picking up what he calls a false report about his radio show. Arguably, the error is the San Francisco Chronicle's (search), but to read Bill's complaint, you'd think that it was the Web sites' fault for not fact checking the paper, which is ostensibly a reputable major-city daily. And not only not fact checking it, but simply citing in good faith what they read there. The implication is that the paper will (or at least may) correct it, but that the "Web sites" won't.

The truth is just the opposite, as we've seen in the recent case of the New York Times (search).

Web sites, particularly weblogs, actually tend to be fastidious about corrections, at least when it comes to objectively verifiable facts, for two reasons.

First, it's easy to do. For a dead-tree publication like a newspaper, it's not really possible to correct an article, in the sense of recalling all the copies and changing the offending text, though they can run a correction in a later edition, and hope that those who saw the mistake earlier will also see the correction. Often, in fact, they'll bury a correction about a mistake on page one in page 30 of the third section, almost making it seem pointless and grudging.

But by the nature of the Internet medium, a blogger can simply either go back and correct the original mistake, or post an update right next to it, noting the error. Most bloggers, including myself, do the latter, because it seems more honest, rather than simply, in George Orwell's (search) memorable phrase, putting the error "down the memory hole" as though it had never occurred. And of course, while bloggers, unlike print publications, can sort of change the past, like print publications, they can't change peoples' memory of it. In addition, the search engine Google (search) remembers anything that's been up for more than a few hours, so there's no point in pretending it didn't happen. Simply noting the change, in a conspicuous location near the original error, is much more straightforward.

The major on-line media publications (i.e., the web versions of print or broadcast organizations) don’t seem to have learned this. When they make a mistake on the web, they tend to simply go back and attempt to change history. In many cases, they are alerted to mistakes by the "Web sites" at which Mr. O'Reilly misplacedly aims his fury. Fortunately for posterity (and unfortunately for them), Google remembers all, and often bloggers will keep screen shots themselves as a permanent record of the blooper. This tends to help keep the big guys honest.

The second reason why web logs are more willing, even eager, to make corrections than a major news publication seems to be a fundamental difference in philosophy. Professional journalists seem to think that you get the story "right" and then you print it, and your reputation is based on getting it right the first time. When a correction has to be run, it's viewed as an institutional failure.

But webloggers believe that the notion of "objective journalism" is a myth, and that there isn't just one story about a set of events. We understand that the story evolves, both as new facts come to light and as the implications of them get chewed on by the collective. We do not try to avoid criticism, but welcome debate with our readership. That’s what weblogs are all about. As James Lileks once wrote, "The newspaper is a lecture. The web is a conversation."

And how does this conversation occur? In two ways.

In many cases, in comments in the weblog itself, but most importantly, there are links. For the most part, unless it's a long original essay, if we're commenting about something in the news, or something that some other weblogger wrote, we link to it, so you can see what we're commenting about.

And here's what Bill O'Reilly really needs to understand.

I don't know whether the particular "Web sites" he's complaining about have issued, or will issue, a correction, mostly because I don't even know which ones they are because he didn't cite them, but consider this.

He took a real lambasting from the blogosphere over his editorial, from a lot of smart people, but every time he took a blow, they linked to his editorial. Which means that everyone who read the critiques, including this one (which is, by now, almost everyone who regularly reads the web), also read his piece, which means that they know, from him, that the Chronicle got it wrong. There's an old saying about there being no such thing as bad publicity as long as they spell your name right. The equivalent in blogdom is "as long as they get the URL right."

The recent saga of the Paper Formerly Known As The Paper of Record should teach us that "working for somebody" doesn't guarantee accuracy--Jayson Blair worked for somebody. But out here in blogdom, where we "don't work for anybody," what's important is not ink, but link. Working for ourselves, all we have is our credibility--without it, the vital link supply dries up, and no one reads us, so it's important to get it right, if not now, then eventually.

Don't lecture us, Bill. Join the conversation.


Last week I accused John Pike of being a physicist. Several people emailed me to tell me that this was a false accusation, so I looked into it. Apparently they're right, and I'm wrong. My subsequent research revealed that Mr. Pike has no obvious qualifications at all to express opinions about launch costs, or even to be on reporters' rolodexes, other than that, by his own admission, he's good at eight-second sound bites.

So, my apologies to him.

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Web log, Transterrestrial Musings.

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