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Blogs vs. real journalism

I was thinking a bit more about Jonathan Rauch’s lament about the fading of the buggy-whip industry print journalism, in which he mocks bloggers, analogizes blogging to scribbling with spray paint on the side of a building, and writes that the blogosphere is “the single worst medium for sustained, and therefore grown-up, reading and writing and argumentation ever invented.”

Yup. Worse than talk radio. Worse than cave painting. Worse than smoke signals, rock ‘n’ roll lyrics, woodcuts, spray-paint graffiti, and every other medium of communication ever invented.

OK, he didn’t really mean it. Rauch actually has an ironclad argument here. He’s claiming, in a blog, that blogging is crap. Therefore, if he fills his blog with unsupported exaggerations, that’s fine, as he’s demonstrating that blogging is . . . crap.

Not to pile on, but, hey, why not? I was curious what Rauch has blogged on lately, so I googled Jonathan Rauch blog and ended up at this site, which most recently (as of this writing) had this unsupported claim:

[In 1980, George H. W. Bush] would probably have lost to President Jimmy Carter had he won the nomination.

I don’t think so. More to the point, Steven Rosenstone didn’t think so in his classic 1983 book, Forecasting Presidential Elections. Bush was more moderate than Reagan and, as such, would have been expected to have done even better in 1980. In any case, I find it extremely implausible that Bush would’ve done so much worse as to actually lose the election.

If Rauch wants to make this claim, counter to all the political science I know, he can go for it, but it would be helpful if he would at least realize that he’s making an extremely strong claim in defiance of the literature. He could’ve found this out by getting on the phone and talking with a political scientist . . . but, hey, there’s no reason to check, right? It’s just a blog, after all.

Luckily for Rauch, the readers of his blog probably don’t know anything about politics anyway, so they won’t know how foolish his pronouncements are. No harm, no foul. It’s not like he’s a political journalist writing for respected publications such as the National Journal or the Atlantic, or a scholar at a respected think tank such as the Brookings Institution. For Chrissake, he’s just a blogger–give the guy a break!

It’s a scary day when mere bloggers such as Felix Salmon and Nate Silver garner more respect than credentialed credentialed journalists such as Rauch. Sure, Salmon and Silver work hard, think hard, write clearly, and stay close to the data–but they never worked their way up from the police beat on the daily paper, so should we really trust them???

OK, ok, I got a little carried away there. . . . Incidentally, I’ve learned that this sort of over-the-top mockery is not a good way to persuade people. It works better when I maintain a cool, tolerant air of detachment and then let the commenters rip into it. But, hey, I couldn’t resist.

Print journalism is polite, online journalism is rude

My real point here–which I seem to have inadvertently demonstrated already–is that in one sense I do think Rauch is on to something, a general difference between print and online journalism.

My impression is that a lot of online writing is just plain rude.

One form of rudeness is what you see above–a blogger heckling a journalist over some little mistake in his writing.

Another form of rudeness comes, I believe, from business writing. You see it in various internet gurus such as Seth Godin, Clay Shirky, Philip Greenspun, and Jeff Jarvis–always getting in your face, telling you how everything you thought was true was wrong. (A particularly irritating but readable example is the blogger The Last Psychiatrist.)

I would distinguish this second kind of internet rudeness from mere ranting. For example, Phil Nugent likes to rant, but to me his rants don’t have the you-listen-to-me-you-idiot feeling I get from Godin, Shirky, Last Psychiatrist, etc. (Of course, all these people occasionally have interesting things to say or it wouldn’t be worth bringing them up at all. I’m speaking here of style, not content.)

I vent on occasion, I pontificiate, and sometimes I even rant, but my usual mode of blogging is exploratory. I write partly to feel out what I’m thinking. And the much-maligned commenters help–a lot. Knowing there’s an audience gives me someone to aim my thoughts at; commenters’ reactions can tell me that I’m misfiring in some way; and sometimes I can learn specific useful things (for example, it was from a blog comment that I first heard about lmer).

OK, now I think I have it:

Journalists tell stories; bloggers rant, hector, and explore. Professional journalism is closed; internet writing is open. A newspaper or magazine article is supposed to come to a pat conclusion and to demonstrate certainty. An online article can demonstrate certainty–and, when it does, you often get that obnoxious over-certainty of Jarvis/Greenspun/etc–but it can also reflect uncertainty and a search for truth, something you don’t find much in the professional press. If Rauch plans to continue to blog, he might consider making use of this opportunity to accept some uncertainty.

3 Comments

  1. Mark Palko says:

    We should also note that some of our best bloggers are doing or have done excellent print work (Chait and Krugman come to mind). I think the relationship is largely symbiotic for good writers.

  2. William Ockham says:

    Just once, I wish one of these guys who whine about bloggers would stop to consider the word they use to describe themselves (journalist) and think the derivation of that word.

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