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What Is a Blog? An Exchange

Undiscovered Country

For some a blog is a literary experiment. Jesus’ General and maybe Jon Swift (I’ve not read him nearly as often) fall into this camp. The General manages to stay in character throughout his entire existence in a biting and hilarious satire. For some, like Pierre, a blog is a journalistic enterprise. Pierre writes material that is honed from his journalistic career: every day, a column. His journal is an editorial exercise not unlike Harper’s readings. The writing is at a very high level, and coming here is like subscribing to a free on-line magazine. We get the added bonus of being able to joust with the author/editor, and other readers, which makes it even more fun. Digby is almost in Pierre’s class. His writing is outstanding, and like Pierre he would rather write one or two extended, thoughtful posts per day (and like Pierre, Digby is a great writer, one of the best on the web...I’ve long wondered why he doesn’t write a book on some of his regular themes). But his writing is less journalistic, less formal. Then there’s Instapundit who prefers the style of writing 50 one-line posts per day.

Some blogs, like Kos (which I almost never read anymore) are big online parties. A virtual salon, enormous in scope. Personally I see my fledgling blog as a sort of daily journal. I record, for myself almost as much as for others, my perceptions of the big issues of the day, plus my reactions to what’s going on in music and the arts. My weekly read is more or less my own reading journal which I share with others. It’s probably my least well read feature, but the one I’m most committed to (for the last 4 months, I’ve read at least one book per week, and it’s been very good for me to have reawakened the reading side of my cerebral cortex.) The writing quality varies widely on blogs. And I don’t just mean the variations in excellence. The writing in most blogs is geared in tone and content for those who are in the club. In many places the writing is more blunt, more coarse, more experimental, not necessarily for publication. Even here, where most of what Pierre writes is not all that different from what he would put in the DBNJ, his tone on the site is probably a little sharper, a little freer.

Edwards hired for his campaign a pair of bloggers with strong intellectual capabilities who wrote very pointed feminist critiques of the Catholic church (Shakespeare’s Sister and Pandagon). Reading some of them (and mostly I’ve read them second hand as this brou-ha-ha has erupted), they are very compelling, thoughtful, and rationalist. But they are not the kinds of writing that could be published in a more mainstream forum...they are too pointed, too controversial, and frankly they were never intended for a wider audience but for a group of like-minded intellectuals and political activists. So take those writings and throw them out into the wider world of a carefully calculated political campaign and crazy things happen.

I am sorry that Edwards’ team lacked the courage to keep these two on his staff. It’s a way of lending legitimacy to the attacks from the right on free speech and frank, open discourse on the net. But most bloggers will probably never really be able to crash the political party, just as good journalists cannot. Good journalism, and good blogging, require an honesty that is missing in politics. Any discussion that is fearless or that people will actually want to read will probably disqualify one from entering the prissified discourse of political campaigns.

That was a long way of getting to my point, but there it is. At some point it would be interested to see an analysis of the kinds of writing on the web and how it differs from public journalism; it’s an interesting topic that not many have explored. Lots of people have talked about the differences in tone and content as a way of being critical of bloggers, but no one that I am aware of has examined the wide range of truly excellent writing out there. There are new genres of writing being developed on the web and it hasn’t really been noticed.

Visit Ohdave at Into My Own...

Resurrecting Discourse

I’m glad you brought out the Edwards issue, even more so in the context in which you bring it up (to say nothing of the flattering way in which you bring it up). I’ve been meaning to write about it pretty much from that perspective, disagreeing, at the outset, with the mainstream press’ self-serving assumption that there’s an inherent difference between blogs and press. There are obvious differences considering the variety and financial means behind the delivery systems, but they’re neither inherent nor set: the very existence of blogs as a medium is changing the way the traditional press functions and sees itself. Reluctantly so, and often resentfully so, but that’s the nature of establishment, dominant institutions getting up-ended by upstarts. Defensively, the establishment press gets hung up on notions of professionalism versus amateurism as a nice diversion from the essential point: are there, or aren’t there, blogs out there that do as good if not better work than the establishment press, at least in specific instances? To me the answer is a clear yes. One blogger can’t do what the Washington Post does. But one blogger can do what one investigative reporter or one book critic or one columnist at the Post does, and possibly do it better. A newspaper’s imprint is not a self-evident mark of quality. Each individual piece of writing is its own mark.

This week the Times fell all over itself trying to sound complimentary to Firedoglake, Jane Hamsher’s site, and its live-blogging the Scooter Libby trial, a group-job it did well enough to have virtual, live transcripts scroll down its pages for other reporters to crib. The piece seemed to me both flattering and condescending: it didn’t, as so many mainstream outlets don’t, know exactly what to make of the blog, which arguably managed to scoop the press a few times. The Times front-paged the story, but it needed a hook, something to justify what it knew it had to do, but did with that typical blend of Timesian reluctance that still doesn’t want to be judged unhip. This was the hook: “For blogs, the Libby trial marks a courthouse coming of age. It is the first federal case for which independent bloggers have been given official credentials along with reporters from the traditional news media, said Robert A. Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association.” Then came the outright condescending flattery: “Even as they exploit the newest technologies, the Libby trial bloggers are a throwback to a journalistic style of decades ago, when many reporters made no pretense of political neutrality. Compared with the sober, neutral drudges of the establishment press, the bloggers are class clowns and crusaders, satirists and scolds.” I don’t disagree, but notice that need, almost always from the mainstream press, to qualify its discoveries of quality in the blogosphere with reminders about the form’s pitfalls—as if broadsheets don’t have their own pitfalls. As if the Times hasn’t given us Jayson Blair, Judith Miller and, well, Arthur Schulzberger Jr.

Form does matter: in the Edwards flap I’d disagree with you that because certain blogs have more particular audiences—more intellectual, less hypersensitive—they’re not a good fit for mainstream election discourse. Those blogs are, in fact, changing the very nature of that political discourse, whether they’re part of the official process, within certain campaigns, or not. By detaching himself from Shakespeare’s Sister and Pendagon, Edwards is retreating back to a safe but soon-to-be outdated stance that doesn’t recognize the ultimate breakthrough of blogs: they represent a pluralist system more than the “establishment” does. Coarseness, rabidness, even crudeness, but also intellect and (to borrow that awful Rumsfeldian phrase) asymetrical thinking is all pat of the bloggers’ discourse, and it’s more enriching of the political discourse than the middle-of-the-road dogmatism that passes for such discourse today.

I’m not so sure that blogging is, except in technological reach, that different from pamphleteering in the eighteenth century. Then too it was the pamphleteers who, despite their small numbers and relatively small audiences, had an influence disproportionate to their means. So I’d say it comes down to substance rather than medium, with this difference: whereas the mainstream media have been able to choke all substance but theirs by essentially controlling the means of distribution, blogs are demolishing that choke-hold, and little by little enabling what original substance, out of an admittedly massive gob of crap, to enter the discourse. (As long as so-called A-list blogs don’t turn into a chokehold of their own, in alliance with the old mainstreamers.)

There’s too much to say on the subject to deal with it in a brief post, but I’m glad you brought it up.

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