We, the blog mob

In a widely-circulated and much-discussed Wall Street Journal editorial, Joseph Rago, the paper's assistant editorial features editor, takes a swipe at the blogosphere. He accuses blogs - "the blog mob" - of being poor in quality, "pretty awful" and "downright appalling." Further, our stories lack nuance and irony, our arguments are self-absorbed and our definition of discourse means insulting our ideological adversaries. His most developed point, and the one echoed by a thousand Joseph Ragos in a thousand old media outlets, is that blogs - specifically political blogs - pose a threat to the "traditional" Fourth Estate. While I have my own thoughts on this argument, one that Chris Bowers has already thoroughly fisked, I would rather spend these precious column inches discussing the point behind the point, the feelings of resentment far more dangerous than those of an ink-stained wretch shouting for we punk bloggers to get off of his lawn.
Rago wants bloggers to fall into his trap. By broad-brushing us as a rabid pack more interested in name-calling than civil discourse, Rago is hoping our refutations don't disappoint. By taking what he considers the high road, Rago expects us to take the low, a practice, ironically, regularly employed by right-wingblogcommenters. Both Rago and the trolls claim to have offered those they critique a fair shot, looking for even-handed, level-headed replies to loaded questions and baseless accusations. When the targets refuse to play by an unfair set of rules and either question their interrogator's motives or demand a fairer exchange of ideas, their petitioners recoil, their apparently delicate sensibilities offended. Responding with counterfeit concern, they make a hasty retreat from our fever swamps, telling us they knew all along we couldn't act like adults. Our behavior only confirmed their suspicions.

Call bloggers a mob and watch as they act like one. Say their posts lack substance and enjoy a stream of ad hominem attacks. Accuse their discourse of being little more than a partisan shouting match and sit back as one erupts. "The petty interpolitical feuding mainly points out that someone is a liar or an idiot or both," Rago writes. To be honest, I was considering titling this story "Joseph Rago: Liar, idiot or both?", but I remembered what he said about our humor being "cringe-making" and our "irony present only in its conspicuous absence". In Rago's bubble, he's constructed a flawless argument in response to which only three things can happen. One, we mock him and confirm his hypothesis. Two, we don't mock him and instead briefly cite his story, also confirming his hypothesis. Or three, we neither mock nor briefly cite his story, instead offering a nuanced response, while still confirming his hypothesis. Why? Because he can claim that he knew all along that there were some good examples of blogging out there, yet not enough to truly give the medium legitimacy. Further, he can pat us on our heads, like a father does his son, telling us he knew we could act like big boys if we tried hard enough. When you write the rules of the game, you always win. Even when you lose.

If the climate of distrust and skepticism toward the political blogosphere exemplified by Rago's editorial continues to remain the dominant frame through which the media view their online lessers, we all lose. Not just the bloggers, but all of us. A careful examination of Rago's piece reveals not only a condescension toward the blogosphere, but also a condescension toward democracy itself. "Blogs are very important these days," Rago begins the piece by writing. "Even Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has one." Nice. From there, Rago, on more than one occasion, employs the royal "we", something that speaks to the hypocrisy inherent whenever well-placed conservatives or their colleagues in the Beltway media discuss the elitism of we liberals. (To that end, and this may be burying the lead a bit, it should be noted that the grizzled newspaper veteran behind this stinging, surely experience-based criticism is, in fact, a 23-year-old recent Dartmouth graduate.) Rago first sets the bar high by saying that the development of blogs, "we are told, is as transformative as Gutenberg's press, and has shoved journalism into a reformation, perhaps a revolution." Later, Rago tells us that "We rarely encounter sustained or systematic blog thought - instead, panics and manias; endless rehearsings of arguments put forward elsewhere; and a tendency to substitute ideology for cognition."

Perhaps Rago's repeated use of the pluralis majestatis could be explained away as an isolated rhetorical flourish if the remainder of his editorial didn't drip with a similar antipathy toward the online community. He refers to "the inferiority of the medium" when negatively comparing blogs to his ham-handed definition of journalism ("Journalism requires journalists"). He speaks of the "participatory Internet" as appearing to "encourage mobs and mob behavior." He attributes the success of the blogosphere to the notion that "everyone likes shows and entertainments" and that the "the Internet, like all free markets, has a way of gratifying the mediocrity of the masses." In again confusing people-powered online activism with his idealistic regard for print journalism, Rago tells us that "The technology of ink on paper is highly advanced, and has over centuries accumulated a major institutional culture that screens editorially for originality, expertise and seriousness." Given the currentstate of journalism, I'll let the irony of that statement speak for itself.

It doesn't take an editorship at a paper supposedly at the pinnacle of a field that has, for centuries, championed originality, expertise and seriousness to recognize Rago's dislike of the blogosphere. Millions of Americans - myself included - are active participants in the online community. And by becoming active participants in the online community, we've become equally active participants in our democracy. The progressive blogosphere (I wouldn't feel qualified, nor sufficiently motivated, to discuss the inner workings of the conservative blogosphere) has helped foster new activist networks, candidate recruitment, rigorous campaign coverage, issue advancement, fundraising and a host of other democratizing outcomes. To limit the extent of the blogosphere, as Rago has, to online journalism and media criticism is to purposely limit one's understanding of a complex medium. There's brilliant, in-depth reportage to be found online, just as there's top-shelf media criticism that has kept the Fourth Estate's feet to the fire. But those things, which Rago likens to "decay" masked as progress, aren't at the core of what makes the blogosphere so special. What Rago doesn't understand, doesn't respect and therefore cannot tolerate is the influence the people-powered community has given its participants.

Thanks to the Internet, the very Americans Rago considers mediocre no longer have to settle for having the conventional wisdom as determined by a select few forced upon them. The days of a cliquish elite determining the direction and rules of our national discussion are over, though the Ragos of the world - in their inexperience, ignorance or both - haven't yet realized it. Maybe they have, and their desperate attempts to marginalize a medium Rago's editorial shows he has very little grasp upon are to be expected. But such arguments, ones that "[grieve] over the lost establishment" are, in Rago's own words, "pointless, and kind of sad." On that account, he's right. Instead of treating the online community as a curiosity, its critics would be far better suited trying to understand why the blogosphere is so popular. Further, tracing its popularity to the so-called appeal of the mob and the appeal to the mediocre masses dismisses the root causes of its advent while also dismissing the value of millions of people. Democracy is only appealing to the ruling class when it allows them to retain power. When the ruled begin to realize that they havethe power, the rulers feel threatened. And that, not the threat blogs pose to journalism, is the true kernel of Rago's argument: He fears us. They fear us.

Good.

Tags: Blogosphere, blogs, journalism, Media, netroots, people-powered politics, Wall Street Journal (all tags)

Comments

5 Comments

Re: We, the blog mob

Much of Rago's observations are correct.  The online forums are not really journalism, investigating and reporting on the facts of events.

Bloggers read too much into it and critics like Rago read too little into it.

Bloggers wildly exaggerate their self importance and critics like Rago pound them for it but both miss the real role and real significance of the online political discussions.

The online forums bring back street level political discourse and involve people in the process.  Technology broke up communities and isolated people and the internet forums have restored the lost connection, the lost sense of community.  Technology taketh away and now it giveth back in another form.

by BrionLutz 2006-12-27 06:55AM | 0 recs
Re: We, the blog mob

BrionLutz said:

Bloggers wildly exaggerate their self importance...

Now I, blues, for one, could not even possibly do that.

And by the way, we simply do not have anything that we would want to seriously call ...really journalism, investigating and reporting on the facts of events.

And further, I have a real sweet deal for this Rago goon: He don't read my bloggings, I don't read his drivel.

by blues 2006-12-27 08:46AM | 0 recs
Do Better

I am as big a critic as the mob blob as anyone.  First off, hell yeah they are improtant.  And if the media covered stories like blogs did, we would not be a nation of warmongers.

But they have to be more active oriented. Mydd is one of the best and got people involved.

But all I see on blogs are nine thousand diaries of Bush said thia, and do you believe Bush did that.  

Yes, I believe it.  It has been happening for the past six years.  So quit the repetive crap.

And here's a tip to the blog mob. You ain't won shit by yourself.  So you better learn to work with all the Democrats.

Biden comes out with how he wants to block the Surge.  And the mob blob makes fun of him. Why?  Isn't this what you want.  Someone like Hillary can do something important, and the mob blob will just make fun of her.

This is a big party, and you better learn to work with others.  Obaman, Hillary, Gore, I don't give a shit.  We need to attack on issues and quit this, we are so cool mentality.

Where is the activism.  And I am as guilty as well.  I know the media will lie their ass off to get a Republican elected.  I have not figured out how to fight it.

But the mob blob better not play the same game.  And from what I see.  They will spend two years destroying every candidate we have.

Just you watch.

by rapallos 2006-12-27 08:33AM | 0 recs
Re: Do Better

Biden is a joke.

by Bob Brigham 2006-12-27 08:49AM | 0 recs
Re: We, the blog mob

Blogs have in fact developed in large part because of general dissatisfaction and failings of the more traditional media.  It is newspapers and TV "journalism" that post sinking ratings and have evolved more and more into opinion pieces rather than investigators.  There is greater corruption in this government than in any other in my memory, including Nixon's.  Yet the media has pretty much ignored investigative journalism in favor of providing a mix of press releases and the latest scoop on Brittany Spears.

Blogs have consistently been ahead of the curve in covering the elections and a whole spate of other stories.  Remember the NY Times, late in the game, reporting that there were thirty competitive House races in the country when it was obvious that the number was somewhere between sixty and seventy-five?   Today and for the last month, the blogs have been right on Iraq and the media was oohing and ahing about the Iraq Study Group.

What has happened, of course, is that the media has abandoned its readership in favor of the interests of its advertisers and owners.  When John Stewart gives a better picture of what's happening than the NY TImes or the Wall Street Journal, the so called MSM is in deep trouble. Let blogs be blogs and not worry about the jeremiads of the young fogies at the Wall Street Journal.  

by David Kowalski 2006-12-27 08:36AM | 0 recs

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