Blogs: Good or Evil?

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 28, 2006 7:42 AM

I write again today about blogging because I believe it has become the most vibrant, innovative and controversial form of information delivery in the media world today.

Also, I was stuck for a column.

The old parameters for this discussion seem pretty stale. Will blogs replace the Old Media? Of course not. Are blogs inherently evil? Puh-leaze. Are bloggers a bunch of misfits with too much time on their hands? A few, perhaps, among the 10 million keeping online journals, but there are too many smart people who have made their mark through blogging for that question to be taken seriously.

A better series of questions: What can MSM types learn from blogs, both in terms of criticism of their work and as a more freewheeling form of communication? Should reporters blog, and if so, what are the boundaries? Would blogs be more of a factor in public debate if more of their practitioners did a little research -- say, including the very old-fashioned notion of calling people up -- instead of merely pontificating?

Why are the best blogs sometimes more compelling than the "Senator Jones said yesterday" style of too much newswriting? Because the bloggers have a voice and emotions and are speaking directly to you. Because they're up front about their biases. Newspaper stories often seem like straitjackets, incremental, dulled-down, written in a sort of insider's code. Plus, blogs are faster, which is part of the reason that and a number of other newspaper sites have either hired outsiders to write columns or put staffers in touch with their inner blogger.

The Philadelphia Inquirer ran a series of columns about this over the weekend, including this one from the Weekly Standard's online editor, Jonathan Last, who expresses skepticism toward his own:

"Blogs can be a real force for good when they act as supra fact-checkers. They can add serious value when they quickly elevate experts in obscure topics to the fore of public discussion (see, for example, the Bush 'National Guard memo' fracas). And they have enormous potential to enable on-the-ground reporting when news happens suddenly or in remote locations. We've seen some of this potential realized, as in sites such as Iraq the Model, but not nearly so much as one might have hoped.

"Balanced against these goods are the pernicious effects of blogs: They elevate analysis over news-gathering; they value speed over judiciousness; and they encourage the practice of journalism to turn in on itself, to tend ever more toward navel-gazing.

"This last bit is the most annoying. Show me a New York Times story on war in Sudan, and I'll show you 20 bloggers who think the real story is how the Times fails in its coverage of war in Sudan.

"But the biggest evil of blogs is that first flaw, blogging's original sin: the discounting of news-gathering in favor of news analysis. Bloggers are forever telling us how easy journalism is, yet very few of them have ever really practiced it. Sure, they may have written opinion pieces that compare favorably to the work of Molly Ivins or Ann Coulter, but opinion writing is a tiny - and let's be honest, inconsequential - corner of the journalism world. Real journalism - the practice of adding to the store of public knowledge by reporting news - is a difficult, thankless, and often unpleasant task. Bloggers want no part of it. Everyone wants E.J. Dionne's job; no one wants to be Michael Dobbs . . .

"Another worry is that, as a medium, the blog does not value well-crafted writing. Except for Mark Steyn and James Lileks, it's hard to pick out even three beautiful writers from the millions of bloggers. Again, the fault here lies with the medium: Being a good writer helps a blogger about as much as a good singing voice helps a broadcast anchor."

Jeff Jarvis is ready to dispense with paper:

"Do we need newspapers? No. Do we need news and journalism and an informed democracy? Of course we do. But paper? Why? Too often, I hear editors pleading to save newspapers and newsrooms as their status quo is threatened by plummeting circulation, imploding advertising, impatient shareholders, multimedia youth and the Internet. Everyone is to blame for newspapers' pickle, it seems, but the newspapers themselves.

"Yet perhaps the era of newspapers as we now know them is simply over. Especially since broadcast killed competitive newspapers, they have become one-size-fits-all vehicles that cannot possibly be all things to all people; they may be convenient, but they are also inefficient and shallow compared with the depth of the Internet. Newspapers are inevitably stale next to broadcast and online. They are inefficient advertising vehicles for highly targeted sales - classifieds and very local retail. Newspapers are terribly expensive to produce and distribute in a marketplace where your competition is free."

The NYT catches up with my reporting on the LAT suspending the blog of columnist Michael Hiltzik:

"In the last few years, newspapers around the country have been testing the waters of the seldom-restrained, often scrappy world of Web-based journalism by setting their reporters loose to write their own blogs.

"Last week, the experiment backfired for The Los Angeles Times. The newspaper suspended the blog of one of its columnists after it was revealed that he had posted comments on the paper's Web site and elsewhere on the Web under false names."

Jarvis on his Buzz Machine site, rips that lead:

"Well, that's like saying that The New York Times' experiment in journalism backfired with Jayson Blair. This isn't about blogging as a form. This is about journalists being afraid to deal with people, eye-to-eye."

Scott Collins of the LAT beats up on CBS's blog for not covering more intensively, say, the controversy surrounding the hiring of Katie Couric:

"CBS hype to the contrary, Public Eye is about as transparent as a sandbag. It better resembles an arm of the network's public relations department than a truth-telling proxy for millions of viewers."

I disagree. I think Public Eye, while not an ombudman's blog, has done a decent job of raising questions about CBS and other news organizations.

In Slate, Sarah Hepola says she's pulling the plug on her blog:

"One morning last month, I woke early, finished a book I'd been reading, and shut down my blog. I had kept the blog for nearly five years, using it as a repository for personal anecdotes, travelogues, and the occasional flight of fiction -- all of which I hoped, eventually, might lead to a novel. And then, somewhere between the bedsheets and 6 a.m., I realized something: Blogging wasn't helping me write; it was keeping me from it.

"I had come to this realization before, but the moment would pass, and I would find myself percolating with small, quotidian stories that I wanted to share: This funny thing happened on the subway; you'll never believe what so-and-so said. Not revelations by any means, but I live alone, and blogging was a way to vent the daily ups and downs that might otherwise be told to the cat. Also, I couldn't help but notice -- even the cat couldn't help but notice -- the growing number of successful bloggers-turned-novelists. They were sexy, dishy women with pseudonyms, Wonkette and Opinionista, like they were dispatching from behind enemy lines. I was starting to feel like the only one left in the blogosphere without a book deal . . .

"Blogging had been the ideal run-up to a novel, but it had also become a major distraction. I would sit down to start on my novel only to come up with five different blog entries. I thought of them as a little something-something to whet the palate -- because it was easier, more immediately satisfying, because I could write it, and post it, and people would say nice things about it, and I could go to bed feeling satisfied. But then I would wake feeling less than accomplished because a blog wasn't a whole story told from beginning to end. I had shelves lined with other people's prose while my best efforts were buried on a Web site somewhere, underneath a lot of blah-blah about American Idol and my kitty cat."

Turning to politics, you might wonder how members of Congress are coping with three-buck gasoline. The answer: They're fighting:

"Fearing public ire over rising gasoline prices," says the Los Angeles Times, "Republicans on Thursday unveiled a sweeping -- if politically impractical -- package of measures to give consumers some relief, including a proposed $100 taxpayer rebate.

"Democrats derided the Republican proposal as insincere, noting that it incorporates ideas already introduced by Democrats and contains provisions sure to torpedo Senate passage, including a measure to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling that has been voted down repeatedly.

"With emotions running high on both sides, a Democratic senator even staged a five-hour filibuster, refusing to leave the Senate floor in an effort to force oil companies to pay more in royalties to drill for oil on public lands."

No wonder Congress has a 22 percent approval rating in a poll I just saw.

Scripps Howard Columnist Deroy Murdock praises the Tony Snow appointment and says he should function as media-critic-in-chief:

"Showcase the media's shortcomings. Snow should not be the press' errand boy. While he should provide journalists with information for their pieces, he also should remind them daily what they are missing and strongly persuade them to cover details and entire stories they neglect.

"Correct journalists' mistakes. Snow should approach each day like a professor reviewing his students' homework. "Terry Moran, here are three glaring errors in the first 15 seconds of your latest ABC News report," Snow might say. "Let me try to help you."

" In a new feature called "Here's What You Missed," Snow should present TV footage the media actively ignore. . . .Showcasing such complete remarks and publicly handing journalists DVDs of corresponding video will make it harder for liberal reporters to spread half-truths by feigning ignorance of inconvenient facts. . . .

" Don't leak; speak. Bush's mistake in partially declassifying intelligence data was his failure to use them to explain Operation Iraqi Freedom. He erred by leaking this information to The New York Times' Judith Miller rather than announcing it to the entire country. Snow should argue for sunshine rather than narrowly tailored points of light.

"Stop helping media foes. The New York Times does not deserve leaks, exclusives or anything beyond its subscription fees. Leaking to the Times, America's most obsessively anti-Bush major newspaper, is like handing one's bitterest critic a loaded gun and awaiting good news. Bush also let the Times publish his exclusive August 2001 op-ed on stem cells. Why? . . .

"Bush's next article should appear on The Wall Street Journal editorial page. Make New York Times reporters gnash their teeth as they quote from the president's exclusive interview with New York Post correspondent Deborah Orin. Chuckle as incoming CBS newsreader Katie Couric airs footage of the president's tete-a-tete with Fox News Channel's Wendell Goler. By favoring the center-right media, the president will enhance their prestige while the anti-Bush establishment media play catch-up."

In other words, the White House press secretary should act like a right-wing talk show host.

Peggy Noonan sees Snow's arrival as giving the White House a fresh chance: "The sense of newness will last for a while because the reporters who tell us the news need a storyline. They need, as they say, a narrative. The narrative they will go with now is: 'Staff Changes Being Felt Throughout White House/May Signal Policy Changes.' The next story line will either be 'Staff Changes Fail to Stop Listless Drift' or 'Shakeups Yielded New Dynamism.'

"So the story now is change, and the story a few months from now is the change that change wrought As a public face of the White House, Tony Snow will likely get a good start. His remarks to the press--'Believe it or not, I want very much to work with you' -- were gracious, and showed legitimate sympathy for the press corps. They have hard jobs and operate under many pressures, from uncomprehending editors in the bubble back in the newsroom to officials who try to jerk them around to executive producers in New York who don't like their hair.

"(One of the best White House correspondents I ever knew, a woman of seriousness and sophistication who threw the ball straight down the middle, was removed from her assignment, her career thwarted, because she'd committed the sin of not being considered pretty enough by her boss. Before she was removed she had to spend half her time getting new clothes and haircuts and makeup. This so she could do a serious job with expertise and spirit. TV is absurd. If only she'd give us the name!

"Mr. Snow's White House press briefings are going to be nice to watch. The press does not want to appear to be ungracious and oppositional. They have an investment in demonstrating that the tensions each day in Scott McClellan's press briefings, with David Gregory's rants and Helen Thomas's free-form animosities, were the fault of Mr. McClellan, not the press. So they will start out gracious with Tony."

A number of prominent Washington Post correspondents are considering the company's generous buyout offer, reports Washingtonian's Harry Jaffe.

Oh, and that Harvard student, Kaavya Viswanathan, who just happened to unintentionally and unconsciously copy large chunks of another author's book? Little, Brown has intentionally and consciously reversed itself and is recalling the thing, reports the New York Times.

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