Friday, January 13, 2006

Throwing rotten fruit at the blogosphere

Via Span, I've just been listening to National Radio's panel discussion on blogging [audio], featuring Finlay McDonald, Kane Hopkins, Keith Ng and Colin Peacock. I'd known that they were going to be broadcasting this for some time (it had apparently been pre-recorded before Christmas), and have been waiting for it to show up for the last month or so.

Anyway, it was the usual discussion by journalists and critics on the blogosphere. While Finlay's comment about how

the debate can get shrill and petty and puerile and really uninformative very quickly and people run to their partisan corners and just basically start throwing rotten fruit and vegetables

will probably raise more than a few hackles (there's already some sniping in Span's comments about the supposed hatred journalists have for bloggers), an honest assessment is that it is right on the button. That is what we do, and its one of the things I loathe the most about the blogosphere (while throwing my own rotting produce on occasions). Bloggers are by definition opinionated (in that we wouldn't do it unless we were), and the net dynamic encourages escalating levels of rudeness (to which I am not immune), and so pretty soon it's flying tomatoes everywhere.

The thing is, what we do isn't journalism, though on our better days some of us aspire to or even meet that seemingly lofty standard. The blogging culture of immediacy and spouting off whatever first comes into your head means that we frequently don't check our facts and often says things we later regret (I've done both, and I'm sorry for it). The good side is that this means that things get said which people would never dare say in the much-maligned "mainstream media", whether for reasons of taste, fear of lawsuits, or fear of official or unofficial retribution by the powers that be (anyone who is even partly familiar with Chomsky knows what those sticks are and how they limit media opinion to that deemed acceptable by the government and/or business communities). Real media has something to lose, and so wouldn't dare publish (e.g.) Craig Murray's Uzbekistan telegrams. Bloggers don't have lawyers telling them its dangerous, and can frequently take advantage of the internet's free market in legal jurisdiction to avoid the consequences anyway. Real media has to think about tomorrow, and whether political sources will still talk to them if they make the obvious comparison between two American rulers named "George" or even publish something which doesn't take the President or the Prime Minister at face value. Bloggers don't. The bad side is that that very lack of accountability (because we are too small or too remote to be able to effectively do anything about) also means that all too often, blogs spread defamation, libel and outright bullshit, act as a channel for organised smearing and swift-boating of public figures, and throwing rotten vegetables. Institutionally, we are a cesspool - and in a cesspool, its not necessarily the cream that rises to the top.

And on the third hand, its not as if anybody pays us any attention anyway. The blog readership in New Zealand is still very small, and while the better blogs are read by an increasing number of journalists, politicians, and "opinion shapers", most of the time we're left to throw our rotten vegetables in peace. It's only very rarely that a news story floats its way to the top of the blogosphere and into the real media where it can influence others - but given the sort of content we produce (mostly comment, often unoriginal, and frequently entirely predictable), that's entirely unsurprising. News, by definition, must be news - not "sad bastard at computer keyboard picks nose, has opinion".

As should be apparent from the above, I am at the least rather cynical about what we bloggers do. I'm particularly cynical about the cheerleaders for the blogosphere, who wank endlessly about Dan Rather and how blogs will replace the Evil Mainstream Media. To do that, we'd actually have to deal in facts, do analysis, confirm quotes, and check it all before we posted - not just spout off whatever brain-fart we had while reading the morning paper. We'd have to actually become journalists and do real work, maybe even think before we post. And that would take all the fun out of it.

And finally, lest anyone think that I think the blogosphere is totally worthless, I don't. The ability of anyone to set up their own site (effectively buy their own printing press) broadens the conversation, at least a little (and I'm aware of how white and male the NZ political blogosphere is). And for those with higher aspirations, journalists don't have infinite time, and there's very definitely a niche for people who want to do a little digging and/or apply some specialist knowledge to have a great influence. But we should also be aware of the blogosphere's flaws - because the people we hope to influence certainly are.


I see blogs as being an improvement on usenet. Opinionated and (usually) articulate people get a forum they can control in which they can express their ideas etc. People can leave comments on the articles so it is still a two way process but with less of the anarchic style of usenet.

Usenet used to be fun but these days almost every thread in the groups I used to frequent quickly devolves into personality clashes rather than any real attempt at debate.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/13/2006 03:05:00 PM

Very much so - that's why I post here and not there.

(That, and nz.politics at the time seemd to be the target of a systematic campaign of disruption by right-wing arseholes. Who have now moved to the blogosphere, where they're doing pretty much the same thing. Fortunately, they do it on their own blogs, where it doesn't bother me...)

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 1/13/2006 03:09:00 PM

With all due respect to Finlay, has he tried reading anything in the Sunday Star Times besides his own column recently?

Look, I'd be the last person to pretend the blogisphere is perfect. It isn't, but I'd really like the MSM to clean up the "shrill and petty and puerile and really uninformative" corners of their own house. Operation Leaf, anyone? John Manukia? The blog-led exposure of Bruce Logan's plagiarised op-eds?

OK, I/S, it's quite right to be a little cynical and very critical of what bloggers don't get right. But please spare me the equally witless romanticism of the MSM. I'd like to see an equally frank panel discussing how the NZ Herald (effectively the only daily newspaper in New Zealand's largest media market) is going to cut $300K p.a. from it's editorial budget without slashing experienced reporters and editorial staff. Or whether the toxic industrial relations environment at RNZ & TVNZ isn't damaging the quality of news and current affairs. And, last but certainly not least, is the revolving door between journalism, corporate PR and political spin doctoring ultimately good for journalism or democracy?

Hard questions, folks, and you can't blame any of it on bloggers.

Posted by Craig Ranapia : 1/13/2006 04:47:00 PM


Your anology of blogs with the printing press is quite apt. Rather than an endless comparison of blogs with newspapers or "the media", I see them more as electronic pamphleteering: individuals having the opportunity to spout off.

Of course whether this spouting has any value depends entirely on the blogger, and whether they've any talent in analysis or entertainment. Apart from Keith's Poll Dancer, there's no original "reporting" going on.

You can't beat the news if your information is old.

I still hold hope of the internet (maybe even blogs) allowing more nuanced debate. Rotting vegetables stink, although there are a few bloggers out there who remain fresh and avoid hystrionics (here's looking at you Craig).


Posted by Matt : 1/14/2006 04:19:00 AM

It was a whingefest by holier than thou journos whose only motivation is selfishness - they always want exclusive stories and to get them first, bugger the consequences. Try getting them to admit error and print it quickly and with prominence. You have a hard job.

This self perception about MSM superiority due to 'fact checking' is bullcrap. I am regularly interviewed by them and have never been called by a sub or news editor checking whether facts are correct. The only fact checking is the journalist ringing you to ask some questions - whether those 'facts' appear correctly is a matter of luck. Half the time your name is spelt incorrectly so how accurate are the other facts?

My biggest frustration is that the media is turning into a "he said, she said" circus, with no actual editorial judgement as to whether what 'he' said has any validity or basis in fact - just the fact they said it is news, and if it involves a little guy against a big corporation, even better. The menB campaign by Kedgely, Summer Bursting and Linda Clark is a good case in point.

Posted by Anonymous : 1/17/2006 09:30:00 AM