Monday, May 23, 2005

Half forensic lab, half tavern 

The New York Times reports this morning on a new study by the Pew Institute, which seeks to tease out the impact of bloggers on the mainstream media's agenda. The study looked at various of the "blogstorms" for which we (as a class) have taken so much credit, and apparently concludes that they are more potent when there is a totem or document that bloggers can latch on to. The article (on page C5 of the business section) focuses on RatherGate, and concludes that it would not have gained the traction that it did if the memos had not been available in digital form for dissection.
For all that, though, the most crucial factor contributing to blog influence in that issue may have been the smoking gun: digital copies of the 1970's-era documents and their impossibly modern fonts.

These became powerful totems because they could be relentlessly examined, tinkered with, traded and discussed online by blogs of all political stripes, each with its own agenda and each contributing to a buzz that ultimately could not be ignored.

Interestingly, the author of the column, Tom Zeller Jr., refers to the Killian memos as "forged Vietnam-era documents," which boosts his credibility on the subject of blogging far above, say, this fool (via Mark Tapscott and Instapundit). Or this guy.

Zeller quotes the study's author, George Washington University Professor Michael Cornfield [he isn't from Iowa, is he? - ed.], who has this to say about the impact of blogging:
"The blogosphere is half forensic lab and half tavern," said Michael Cornfield, an adjunct professor at the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University and the chief author of the study.

"The magic of the Internet is you can be looking at evidence, at direct documentation, while you're talking," Mr. Cornfield said, referring to the fake memos that turned blogs into influential buzzmakers. "It would be as if the Nixon tapes were available in MP3 format during Watergate."

I think this is as decent a metaphor as I have seen. Bloggers as a group combine two attributes -- the ability to assemble expertise on almost any topic at extreme speed, and the propensity to write at very high velocity. This combination of expertise and velocity comes at the cost, perhaps, of sobriety (there's the tavern metaphor) and deliberation. However, the competing tendency of bloggers to edit each other, also at high velocity, limits the potential damage of errors of fact.

UPDATE: I'll have more to say on the underlying report at the other end of the work day.


By Blogger Cardinalpark, at Mon May 23, 10:47:00 AM:

Tigerhawk - speed and expertise -- AT a LOW COST. Blogging is in some respects nothing really new in America. It's the free expression of opinion and ideas. What's truly revolutionary is its low cost of production and distribution for so many people with opinions. As a result, as a medium, it is a powerful and daunting competitor.

Remember the days when each town had 3 papers in 3 editions? That died due to economic considerations and the advent of radio and tv news. Each town evolved to create a newspaper monopoly (or a duopoly, whatever size could be supported) to have a viable economic paradigm.

Blogging is this new competitive monster because it disrupts 2 important forms of market power held by tradiitional media - distribution power which derives from the airwaves (FCC licensed), cable (local regulatory franchise) or the local newspaper monopoly/brand; and monopsony hiring power (before you could only earn your keep working for a big media company. One of the amusing things missed completely by the MSM liberals who hate the blogs is that blogging could be their economic liberator (if they're any good, that is). That's what Roger Simon is trying to do after all. And they could swap their jeans for pajamas.  

By Blogger Bruce, at Mon May 23, 11:12:00 AM:

It's worth noting that the tavern mentality was also present in the 1700s Scottish enlightenment which produced such greats as Adam Smith (founder of modern economics), Hume, and lots of others.  

By Blogger KJ, at Mon May 23, 11:58:00 AM:

Adam Smith would be proud. As a sort of recent Nobel Prize winning economist might say (Ronald Coase, 1991), the technology has reduced the transaction costs of the free exchange of political discussion, and eliminated the prior property rights of the lamestream media in news dissimenation.

Not only that, but a drink while blogging always helps. So the pub analogy works for me.  

By Blogger Scot, at Mon May 23, 12:31:00 PM:

I think the money quote is, "and the propensity to write at very high velocity..."

The take-away for the MSM should be "Don't pick a fight with a mob of people who buy their ink by the terabyte." The Pajamahadin can out-publish print and broadcast media combined by orders of magnatude. Its the colonial handbill publishers vs. the 3-month-old dictums of George III. Bloggers are too far inside the OODA loop of the MSM to be ignored, but the monoliths continue to try the same tactics they used against the Nixon administration 30 years ago.

The other similarity to the Revolution and the media defeat of the Government in 1975 is that the media is on the wrong side. they have to use lies and questionable sourcing to try to support their flawed ideology that cannot withstand the velocity and volume of the Blogosphere any more than George III's corrupt self interest could be hidden from colonists who were constantly barraged by information from a motivated opposition.

As long as the MSM continues to be an incompetent purveyor of leftist propoganda, the Blogosphere will continue to thrive on their bloated carcases. Its like the sloth vs. the velociraptor. Good luck liberals!  

By Blogger Bill Peschel, at Mon May 23, 12:35:00 PM:

It's worth noting that Rathergate wouldn't have had any traction at all if CBS hadn't, in its hubris, released images of the documents. If they had merely quoted them, they would have given the pajama squad anything to chew over.

In the future, the more astute journalists will learn never to release the original documents, while those on the blogging side should become suspicious when journalists do not. With the Webs near-infinite resources, there's no reason for an acquired report not to be posted online.  

By Blogger MoDoc59, at Mon May 23, 02:36:00 PM:

Of course the NYT things blogging and bloggers are not on the same par as their crackpot journalists (et tu Jayson Blair); they are in the process of charging the blogosphere money to read their editorial rants.

I say more power to them. It will just cut down on the number of web sites I visit in a day!  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 23, 03:28:00 PM:

So much of what goes on in the blogosphere is in response to what bloggers find printed by the MSM on their bird cage liners. What will you do if the MSM actually becomes an honest source of news?  

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon May 23, 03:35:00 PM:

“In the future, the more astute journalists will learn never to release the original documents …”

I think that astute journalists are learning, quickly, that they must release or link to original documents, or be adjudged liars and/or manipulators until proven otherwise.

One of the things the MSM seems to have run up against is the growing realization that many of the “factual” pieces they publish are nothing of the sort, but are actually editorials or opinion. Permitting facts to speak for themselves does not appear to be a highly regarded journalistic practice in America’s newsrooms.

In a world of sole-source monopolies, this works. But that world is dying. There are too many sources for fact checking.


By Blogger TigerHawk, at Mon May 23, 04:03:00 PM:

The penultimate comment raises an interesting question: what will bloggers do if the MSM becomes an "honest" source of news?

Ah, that is when blogging will come into its own. "Honesty" on the part of the MSM would not require factual perfection or perfect ideological neutrality, but "openness." In this blogger's conception, an "open" major paper or network would continue to do the heavy lifting of "real" journalism, the kind that involves lots of shoe leather or phone calls. Then, having published or broadcast a story, it would watch for meaningful corrections and amplifications in the blogosphere. Those corrections and amplifications -- ideally complete with links and trackbacks -- would be used to revise, correct and supplement the published story. Every issue of the New York Times, for example, would in its online form become a living document. In this way, the MSM would "hire" (for free) tens of thousands of fact-checkers and editors who would refine their product. Similar, there would be many occasions when bloggers would initiate stories in their capacity as "citizen journalists," presumably complete with photography and even video. The MSM could build substantive follow-up coverage around the bloggers' original reporting.

Finally, there are today many topics about which the MSM reports in apparent ignorance of the expertise at its disposal. If, for example, some think-tank pumps out a report with an attendant press release, a well-run MSM paper might think about emailing the report around to known expert bloggers and solicit fiskings. In return, the MSM organ would offer a trackback.

In the end, bloggers just want two things: an audience, and respect. Increasingly we have the former. Every time we convince ourselves that we have the latter, some clown in the major media comes along and calls that into question. It drives us insane.  

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