I was at the bloggers-meet-journalists lunch a few days ago which Matt Stoller and others have been talking about, and even tried to say something, but was shut down by the moderator, who thought that I was going to say something else altogether. What struck me (and what I was going to say) was that the journalists there didn’t seem to understand how the blogosphere worked at all. My half-assed explanation of why is as follows …
I can understand how the people at the Post would get upset at hundreds of commenters from Atrios’ or Kos’s comments sections showing up to make their objections heard – while they’re nothing on, say, the denizens of the slimepit at LGF, their manner of criticism can be … robust. I’m willing to believe that there were some commenters who didn’t make it through the moderation system, and who got hateful (Howell suggested that there were some pretty nasty sexual epithets in there, and I believed her). But even so, the incomprehension with which journalists responded to bloggers seemed to me to point to something more fundamental. Journalism and blogging have different internal systems of authority. Newspaper articles aspire to presenting a comprehensive, neutral and authoritative judgement regarding the facts at hand in a particular matter. Of course, they don’t always succeed in doing this at all – hence the need for ombudsmen, correction columns etc. But even if this standard is often more honoured in the breach than the observance, it still is the basis for the journalistic claim to authority, and status. Blogposts are quite different – they’re arguments in an ongoing debate. They don’t aspire to any sort of finality or authoritativeness (and indeed they’re often updated in response to new arguments or facts). They comment on, and respond to, what others are saying.
The point is that they have very different – and clashing – notions of where authority and responsibility come from. Each newspaper article has the form of a discrete statement, which is supposed to be as authoritative as possible on its own ground. Each blogpost has the form of an intervention in an ongoing conversation – the blogger’s authority rests in part on her willingness to respond to others and engage in argument with them. A blogger who doesn’t respond to good counter-arguments is being irresponsible (of course many bloggers are irresponsible in this way; there isn’t much in the way of formal policing of this norm). These forms of authority are difficult to reconcile with each other, because the latter in large part undermines the former. If journalists start systematically responding to their critics, and getting drawn into conversations about whether or not they were right when they made a particular claim, then they’re effectively admitting that the articles they have written aren’t all that authoritative in the first place. They’re subject to debate and to revision. Thus, in part, the tendency for journalists like Jack Shafer to dismiss criticism from bloggers and their commenters as “organized riots” and lynch mobs. It’s a fundamental threat to their notions of where journalistic authority comes from. Thus also, I suspect, Howell’s reluctance to respond directly to critics like Brad DeLong, when it would obviously (to a blogger) be in her best interests to do so.
Comments are welcome – as I say, these are thoughts in the process of being formed (an intervention in an ongoing conversation if you like).