Thursday, May 03, 2007

Jon Chait on Netroots and Blogging

There's been some amount of discussion of Jon Chait's piece in The New Republic on blogs. Big Tent Democrat of Talk Left has a good summary of some of the discussion:
The varied reactions to Jon Chait's Netroots piece brings to mind "Rashomon." My initial reaction is here. Other reactions I would group as reacting to Chait's take on the political activism component, see Bowers, the Right/Left blogwars component, Atrios, the New Left purity reaction, see Booman, and the semi-pundit reactions, featured here by TNR, of Matt Yglesias and Eric Alterman.

Of the folks who were or might be defined as Netroots, Bowers for instance, I think he took personal affront to the idea that he was a propagandist and not someone who is more married to the truth than to his desired political outcome. I understand his reaction but he doth protest too much. There can be no doubt that the Netroots, Bowers, included, pay attention to the stories that are favorable for his desired outcomes while overlooking those that are not. We ALL do that. Certainly propagandist is not right, but the idea that he is not engaged in at the least, advocacy journalism that is not truly interested in telling the whole objective story, is rather silly. Chris admits as much in his wrapup sentence on the subject:
Chait's standard for what counts as propaganda is absurdly broad. Basically, he seems to imply that anyone who is interested in making any impact on politics is engaging in propaganda, because that person is no longer engaging in a purely disinterested pursuit of ideas.

We are not propagandists, but we are advocacy bloggers. And advocates argue a side. And that means NOT being fair. The judge is fair. The lawyer is not....

I'm not sure I even agree with this definition though I accept it as a way of looking at blogging from a certain angle. Now I'm not a netroot though I can't pretend I know the exact definition of a netroot except I sort of know it when I see it: fundraising, advocating for specific candidates, essentially acting a little like a political campaign, a political consultant, etc.

I do know why I've been so heavily involved in commenting on politics and foreign policy for more than four years now: I was tired of being lied to by my government. You can't complain about being lied to and give up credibility, at least not in my book. Credibility and objectivity, however, are not the same thing. I make no pretense of being objective. I'm clearly a writer and a political activist who's very interested in where our country and the world are going. Yes, I do advocate various positions—after I do my homework. Frankly, I'm suspicious of the whole argument. I'm not a reporter. I don't exactly consider myself a journalist though a loose definition might apply.

One of the things that bothers me about criticism of blogging is how often it seems directed to blogs left of center, as if there are no blogs on the right with serious numbers. I don't mind saying that far too many blogs on the right, particularly the far right, often suffer from a lack of credibility and are hard for anyone but the most ardent right wingers to take seriously (and how does one take seriously right wing blogs that repeat the transparent, easily researchable lies of our government?). Personally, I think there's a conventional wisdom out there trying very hard to remain relevant and one way to protect their turf is to attack blogs while ignoring their failures over the last twenty years and particularly the last six.

Again, I don't claim to be objective (and there are very few media outlets that can comfortably wear that tag in any case). When I quote from articles, I sometimes leave things out of my posts because the things I leave out are too often part of a conventional wisdom I reject. If I read a story about a Republican stealing three million dollars from the taxpayers and the 'reporter' (or pundit) lets us know that a Democrat also stole money, I refuse to accept the equivalence if, let's say, the Democrat illegally used a campaign fund to pay a five hundred dollar bill. I refuse to play that game. I fully expect Democrats to be prosecuted like anyone else when they break the law but when we have a party as corrupt as Republicans currently are—and so few of them going to jail or losing their jobs—I have little patience for a phony fair-and-balanced reporting that makes mush of the story. The conventional wisdom is out there and doesn't need help from me but I would argue that some of my posts (and the posts of a number of others more prolific that myself) have been considerably more credible and relevant than the mush published or broadcast in the major media.

Readers too have to do their homework. That's what the links are for. When I read other people's posts, I find myself digging into the story and using Google to answer questions I have and occassionally chasing down information at the library. That's how I got to posting on message boards, making comments on blogs and finally doing my own blog. If what I'm doing is propaganda, then a very broad interpetation is at work. By that definition, Thomas Paine's Common Sense was propaganda. That would be good company. But when a president endlessly repeats the phrase, '9/11,' as a way of excusing or justifying his deceptions and avoiding accountability, we're talking about a kind of propaganda that is truly offensive. We've seen far too much of that kind of propaganda.



Anonymous S.W. Anderson said...

"And advocates argue a side. And that means NOT being fair. The judge is fair. The lawyer is not"

Faulty, faulty reasoning. The advocate for a side and the lawyer who advocates for a client while adhering to facts, while seeking truth in fair, open, honest and above-board ways, are as fair as the judge who hones to the law.

The blogger who takes facts and statements out of context, who shades the truth or outright lies, who absolutely refuses to acknowledge the other side is ever right, or at least has a credible position, about anything, bears no resemblance to what I describe in the previous paragraph.

It makes no more sense to generalize about bloggers than about conventional news sources. Just evaluate Fox News against PBS' "News Hour With Jim Lehrer," or The Washington Times against The Miami Herald, for example.

Advocates can be — and the good ones are — reasonable, fair, careful about facts, willing to run corrections, and remain open to new information.

Good bloggers might be even better about these things than some conventional news sources precisely because so many bloggers have no commercial ties or other economic incentives to be or do otherwise.

Anyone who doubts my points should consider the metamorphosis of John Cole (Balloon Juice), whose blog was once a pro-Bush hotbed of neoconservative orthodoxy and highly dismissive of anything faintly resembling "bleeding heart" notions.

The short of it is that Cole got a belly full of the lies and lying, corrupt liars who told them. Intellectual honesty trumped party identification and old habits.

Oh, Cole still goes off on libertarian toots, still skewers the occasional Democrat. But on essential matters, he no longer touts or defends a self-deprecated -by-facts-and-truth party line that he once ardently supported.

That, in my book, means something.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Craig said...

"That, in my book, means something."

S.W., it means something to me too. It's been fascinating to watch reasonable conservatives work their way through some of these issues.

Certainly, big name media reporters have an obligation not just to report what their sources say (or even their Washington social circle) but to check out the veracity of what their sources say. It sometimes doesn't take a whole lot of checking to shoot down a story. Lehrer's News Hour is generally good that way and credible but I catch Andrea MItchell and Christopher Matthews making repeated errors and the errors are not minor. But they are checkable.

One of my favorite checkable facts is Nixon's famous assertion that if it weren't for voter fraud in Chicago in 1960, he would have won the election. Well, the election in Illinois was not that close. It's true that the nationwide vote was very close (Kennedy won) but the electoral vote itself had a much wider margin. Even if Nixon had managed to win Illinois, he would still have lost the electoral vote. I easily checked the facts long ago in an almanac and later checked it out further in a university library just in case the almanac had got it wrong. Nope. Nixon was simply lying through his teeth. He knew perfectly well what the results were. It's the type of error and/or mythology some members of the media pass on without checking.

5:06 PM  

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