Quacks and Cranks

Simon Jenkins in The Times, like most people who it seems only read the lunatic fringe of the American blogosphere, is not impressed by blogs.

These people claim to be the unofficial legislators of free opinion. They quake, rant, muckrake, scream like 17th-century Puritans. Most of the blog sites regurgitate and spin what the mainstream media (dismissively the “MSM”) has spent millions finding and checking. Most are fanatically conservative. All you need is a taste for exhibitionism and a fancy name: mediabistro, FishBowlDC, wonkette. One Yahoo blogger, Ted Rall, gives warning of the blogosphere: “A new sheriff’s in town. He’s drunk. He’s mean, and he works for the bad guys.” The web is the Bushites’ revenge on the liberal media establishment. A blog polarises or dies.

Jenkins repeats the commonly heard refrain about how blogs rely on the media to produce source material for their discussions, as if this in some way weakens the value of the blogger.

The problem for conventional journalism is to prove that such qualities as newsgathering and reliability are worth more than a scream of opinion, enough to get people to part with money. I notice how often blogs refer to items witnessed on television or read in The New York Times. Someone must gather this stuff, check it, source it, write and edit it.

Well, of course. We bloggers all know that we need quality articles in the papers in order to have something to discuss. So does Simon Jenkins I would imagine. After all, what would columnists like him write about if there were no reporters to create actual news for him to respond to?

But bloggers, the better ones anyway, do carry out research. They check the sources of newspaper articles, they leave links so that readers can check out their source material.

And on the issue of the quality of research in newspapers, how much studying of the blogosphere did Simon Jenkins do to reach the mistaken conclusion that most (blogs) are fanatically conservative? I read scores of blogs every day and none of them fit that description.

And what really is there for columnists like Jenkins to be afraid of? Once upon a time columnists wrote their piece and apart from maybe one or two letters to the editor that was the end of it. Now, when you read something on the op-ed pages of, say, the Guardian, you know that by lunchtime you will be able to find someone online challenging the arguments and begining a discussion that you, if you wish, will be able to join in. A case could be made that blogs are actually enhancing the profile and importance of newspaper journalists. After all, how many Americans had heard of Robert Fisk or Melanie Phillips five years ago?

British papers need not worry — as yet. Such much-cited blog triumphs as the toppling of Eason Jordan, the CNN executive, and the humiliation of CBS’s Dan Rather would not have needed the web to expose them in Britain. They would have been splashed across every tabloid. The American press remains timid. The Patriot Act suffered nothing like the press mauling given to Tony Blair’s control order legislation.

There is some truth in that, although the idea that The Sun would have splashed a story about a comment made by a journalist at the Davos conference seems a bit of a stretch. Nonetheless, as I pointed out before, while American blogs react against the small-c conservatism of the US media, British blogs have, on the whole, been much less interested in the shock-horror reporting that dominates the British papers.

So while the British press have been obsessed with who has been shagging who at the Spectator or where Charles and Camilla are going to tie the knot, most of the blogs I read have been discussing democratisation in the Middle East. Exactly who is dumbing down discourse?

But Jenkins, while recognising that he too provides one man’s opinion, insists that this is a struggle between honest, professional journalism and the cheapskate right-wing punks with no interest in the truth:

Yet the ground did shake under me. Earlier threats to the press came from new conduits of news and information. Today’s goes to the heart of my trade. It peddles opinion. I can pretend to occupy a higher plane. I can try pleading factual accuracy, consistency, uncorruptibility and a quote or two from Shakespeare. But in truth I too am a blogger, snatching at some item of passing news to argue a case and persuade. And I charge for it. The blogger does it for nothing. I am on my mettle as never before.

So move over, Caxton, the mystery is no more. The whistle-blowers, e-babies, inside-outers, wonkettes, quacks and cranks have globalised Speakers’ Corner. They have rebuilt the Tower of Babel and put microphones on top of it. Amid the noise, a still small voice of reason will still be heard. But it may require the help of Microsoft, not dead trees.

I wonder who Jenkins thinks that still small voice of reason might be?

No, it couldn’t be…..

Update: Scott at the Daily Ablution waves his magical Fisking wand in the direction of Simon Jenkins.