U.S. News & World Report reported last week that several senior Republican senators — upon hearing that "blogs" had uncovered the Dan Rather scandal, helped to defeat Tom Daschle and pushed for the resignation of CNN executive Eason Jordan — demanded that "blogs" be added to their official Web sites.
Even though, as a Capitol Hill Web consultant told the magazine, most of them hadn't the slightest idea of what a "blog" actually is.
It's an amusing story, but the more I read about the weblogging phenomenon (search) from traditional media sources — the more I hear about it from talk show hosts and pundits, and the more triumphalism, tribalism, and group hurt we're starting to see from the "blogosphere" — the more I'm convinced that even "hip" reporters and tech-savvy bloggers themselves don't really "get" blogs any more than those senior Republican senators do.
In truth, "blogs" are nothing more than a relatively new way of distributing information, just as radio, television, newsprint, and conventional Web sites once were. Blogs differ from other media in that they provide links for easy referencing, they're more easily and quickly updated (and, consequently, many times less carefully edited), they allow for more interaction between reader and publisher, and there's virtually no barrier to entry — meaning just about anyone can start his or her own blog. You don't need to win the approval of an editor. You don't need start-up money from a publisher. You don't need a radio tower.
Bloggers also can operate outside the "rules" and standards — in terms of attribution, verification of sources, objectivity and concerns for libel and lawsuits — that are supposed to govern traditional journalism.
Other than that, blogs aren't all that different the traditional media. The "blogosphere" isn't so much an alternative to the conventional newsstand as it is a massive extension of it. There are well-edited, well-researched, well-written blogs and there are poorly edited, poorly written, gossip-driven blogs, just as your roadside newsstand carries publications ranging from The Economist to the Weekly World News.
There are scholarly, erudite blogs and there are blogs that rant and screech. Your newsstand likely carries opinion journals ranging from Dissent on the far left to Policy Review or National Review on the right. The blogosphere extends those extremes on either end, and leaves few gaps in between. Some of it is insightful and articulate. Some of it represents original, undiscovered talent. Much of it, unfortunately, is garbage.
Just as the newsstand isn't exclusively political, neither is the blogosphere. Up until just a few years ago, most blogs weren't political at all but were tech sites run by computer geeks or online diaries produced by teenage girls.
Today, political blogs get most of the attention, but make up a relatively small percentage of the eight million blogs experts estimate occupy cyberspace. You can today find a blog to cover every niche interest from every angle or perspective imaginable.
And that's why all of this collective talk about "blogs" is ridiculous. Blogs are simply too numerous and diverse to make broad generalizations about their effect, motives or "philosophy."
The idea that there's a clear line of demarcation between "blogs" and "old media" was probably false from the start, but it becomes more difficult to defend by the day.
One of the first popular bloggers was Andrew Sullivan (search), who had a distinguished career in journalism before starting his blog and has continued to write for popular media outlets since.
Glenn Reynolds, founder of Instapundit.com, also wrote a column for FOXNews.com and now writes for MSNBC. Popular leftist bloggers Kevin Drum and Matthew Yglesias (search) now write for "old media" publications such as the Washington Monthly and The American Prospect, respectively.
At the same time, "old media" pros are starting blogs by the fistful. Several MSNBC news personalities now run their own blogs, as do reporters and columnists from the New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
And, although they have positioned themselves as media watchdogs, bloggers too are prone to the same biases, mistakes, feeding frenzies and self-important elitism that the current wisdom says distinguishes them from the traditional media.
Sometimes, even more so. For example, despite their contempt for the New York Times, most conservative blogs have virtually ignored the criticism of Times reporter Judith Miller from media critics, likely because her sloppy reports on Iraq's WMD program confirmed their own biases.
Likewise, many of the same leftist blogs that castigate the religious right for intolerance didn't hesitate to reveal the sexual peculiarities of White House correspondent/sympathizer James Guckert (search ), aka Jeff Gannon.
Perhaps the best example was Election 2004. Far from proving the alleged independence of the blogosphere, last year's campaign saw nearly all of the high-trafficked blogs put their differences with the major parties aside, line up neatly for either Bush or Kerry, and dutifully recite talking points for their respective guy's campaign ad nauseum. There were exceptions, of course, but far too few.
I've been blogging for three years. I think the medium has enormous potential. If the fear of having their mistakes and biases exposed by blogs causes larger media outlets to give important stories extra scrutiny, that's a good thing.
Blogging's comparative advantage is that it's cheap and it's easy to take up. A good blog also doesn't need the readership a magazine or newspaper needs to survive. The result is a significant expansion of the scope, breadth and depth of public discourse. Good blogs will rise to the top. That means new voices, new perspectives and new reporting. These are things to be celebrated in a free society.
But let's not fetishize blogging, either. There's no reason to think that these new voices will be inherently more or less flawed than the mainstream media voices we've been hearing for generations. There will be good and bad bloggers just as there are good and bad reporters, magazines, newspapers and opinion journals.
In the case of bloggers, there will just be a heck of a lot more of them.
Radley Balko maintains a Weblog at: www.TheAgitator.com.