Bloggers and journalists

by Henry on January 29, 2006

I was at the bloggers-meet-journalists lunch a few days ago which “Matt Stoller”:http://www.mydd.com/story/2006/1/28/1527/04347 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).

Goldsmith and torture

by Henry on January 29, 2006

Via “Orin Kerr”:http://www.volokh.com/archives/archive_2006_01_29-2006_02_04.shtml#1138553669, this Newsweek “story”:http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11079547/site/newsweek/ about Jack Goldsmith and his efforts to oppose the Bush administration’s claims to sweeping powers to authorize torture and to wiretap American citizens. It’s become more and more clear over the last few months that Goldsmith played a very honourable role behind the scenes – while he’s certainly a conservative, he appears to be one who’s prepared to stick to his principles when it’s politically difficult. When Goldsmith was appointed to Harvard Law School, some of his liberal colleagues “protested”:http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/11079547/site/newsweek/, arguing that he might have been complicit in authorizing torture (others, more reasonably, were concerned about his theories of international law). At this stage, I believe that the former owe him a fulsome public apology.

Sony Bono, Mickey Mouse and John Clare

by Chris Bertram on January 29, 2006

I watched Peter Ackroyd’s BBC programme on the “Romantic poets”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/romantics/ yesterday and was rather taken with the account of John Clare. So I was googling around trying to find out more and, via the “Wikipedia entry”:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Clare , happened upon the extraordinary fact that much of Clare’s work is subject to a copyright dispute. Since Clare died in 1864 I wondered how this could be so. There’s a page of links on the whole dispute at the “John Clare page”, but the in-a-nutshell version is in “a Guardian article by John Goodridge”:http://www.guardian.co.uk/Archive/Article/0,4273,4042964,00.html :

bq. Under the 1842 Copyright Act which was in force at Clare’s death, in the case of published works copyright endured for 42 years after publication or seven years after the author’s death, whichever was later. Thus three of Clare’s published volumes came out of copyright in 1871, and the fourth in 1877. For unpublished works, however, copyright was a very different matter. Under common law, an author, or after his death his personal representative, retained perpetual control over his work as long as it remained unpublished. This is particularly important in Clare’s case, since his four published volumes contained only about 10% of his total output – some 300 poems out of more than 3,000 he wrote in his lifetime. This common law “perpetual” loophole for unpublished material was written into the Copyright Acts of 1911 and 1956, and finally replaced in the 1988 Act with a finite, 50-year term of protection (made potentially extendable by a further 25 years in a 1996 Act). In Clare’s case, this could extend the copyright claim well into the middle of this century ….

There’s more, including the tenuous chain by which the copyright was passed on and the more recent purchase of the rights for £1 by a US academic.