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Mean Media

Blogs are unmediated opinion–not journalism.

Bloggers like to deride MSM (the mainstream media, in their lingo) for not “getting it.” To avoid some of the sarcasm endemic to the new medium, we declare up front: Technology Review gets it. In fact, we love blogs so much that is in part a blog site: we publish some of our most popular writers on blogs.

Thirty-two million Americans read blogs in 2004, according to the Pew Research Center. That is because blogs have great powers: they can spread the ideas of individuals faster, farther, and more cheaply than anything seen before. At their best, blogs are subversive, provocative, and fearless. Most fascinatingly, the ideas proposed on blogs have some of the characteristics of commodities in a free market. New postings are quickly valued by the blogosphere’s economy: reliably stupid bloggers are not linked to by their peers, and no one visits their websites.

Blogging is good for commerce. Corporations like Sun Microsystems are discovering that blogging’s transparency can help them reach customers in new ways. More than 1,000 of Sun’s 32,000 employees—including the company president—write public blogs, many of which freely divulge the latest news about Sun projects. As our case study “Sun Microsystems: Blog Heaven” (p. 38) reports, Sun’s executives have learned that bloggers connect with customers on a more authentic and human level than any marketing or public-relations expert.

Blogging is good for the media, too. Political bloggers sometimes describe their movement as a kind of insurgency against MSM, and the emergence of a new cloud of media critics is, in fact, a welcome development. Various business and social pressures have made it harder for many journalists to report the news objectively. Bloggers can quickly call traditional journalists to task for their errors and biases.
So much for the good. But blogs also have the power to focus writers’ ire in ways that can destroy their targets.

Recently, we’ve seen the blogosphere’s vindictive side. Conservative bloggers, offended by what they see as the arrogance and liberal bias of MSM, have hounded two prominent newsmen from their jobs. First, bloggers hastened the retirement of CBS news anchor Dan Rather for his preëlection coverage of what turned out to be dubious memos relating to President Bush’s national-guard service. Then, in February, CNN’s chief news executive, Eason Jordan, resigned “to prevent CNN from being unfairly tarnished” by bloggers’ outrage at an incautious remark Eason made at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland (see “Letter from Davos,” p. 78).

This relentlessness is in no way limited to conservative bloggers. In February, reporter Jeff Gannon was barred from attending White House press conferences after liberal bloggers picked up on a question Gannon asked President Bush in which he took a swing at Senate Democrats. The bloggers revealed Gannon’s real name (James Dale Guckert) and that he had obtained press credentials as a representative of Talon News, a website sharing an owner with the conservative activist organization GOPUSA—not the kind of independent news organizations usually extended White House press privileges. While Gannon hardly had the stature of Rather or Jordan, the episode was a reminder that bloodthirsty bloggers can be found on both sides of the nation’s political divide.

Perhaps all three men deserved their fates; maybe the blogosphere is to be applauded. But in each case, bloggers expressed an unseemly triumph after they got their man. It’s hard to feel happy when bloggers turn into a digital mob. Blogs are powerful, but bloggers are rewarded for expressing extravagant opinions. And at least for now, their postings are not subject to the processes common for most stories produced by MSM: sober debate among colleagues, followed by reporting, line editing, copyediting, legal vetting, and fact checking.

Blogging and the Internet must be credited for transforming the lofty castle of publishing into something like a public utility. But blogs can also be destructive and unaccountable. Readers would do best to enjoy blogs for what they are—reactive, unmediated, immediate opinion—and not mistake them for journalism.

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