Tuesday, January 24, 2006

OJR vs. MSM blog roundups

Online Journalism Review is not very thrilled with mainstream media (MSM) "blog roundups".

OJR is associated with USC Annenberg.

Let's join the discussion now, as I quote this article, so you can watch the entire argument develop, and see at what point I feel asleep....zzzzzzzzzzzzzz:

Blogs in the MSM: Rating the roundups


and vaingloriously attach [my running commentary] to it.


Blogs in the MSM: Rating the roundups

Mainstream news sources are increasingly linking to political blogs. Is the debate being enriched or are some voices remaining outside the loop?

By Scott Gordon
Posted: 2006-01-24

Traditional news sources are telling a contradictory story about political weblogs.

[VASPERS: Good, start right off with an accusation. As Dadaist pre-blogger diarist Hugo Ball suggested, don't attack ideas, attack prominent people manifesting those ideas. People are stubborn about their ideas, but they will listen to complaints against specific people. People prefer gossip and strife over education and meditation.]

While blogs are presented as the engines of a rejuvenated political debate, MSM sources often link readers to posts that merely restate ideas that have been repeatedly rehearsed by politicians, activists and mainstream commentators.

[VASPERS: And this is why the MSM is dying. They arrogantly, misguidedly, egotistically resist change, especially when that change is coming from the "great unwashed masses", the pajama-clad blogger fiends.]

Most Internet users have yet to start using blogs -- about 73 percent of them, according to data from the Pew Internet & American Life Project -- and it is reasonable to predict that some will try to learn about blogs through major news sources' blog roundups.

[VASPERS: Well, then the MSM is doing a horrible lousy job of enlightening people about blogs. The average person and the typical business executive knows nearly nothing about blogs.

Why is the MSM doing such a poor job explaining blogs?

Such is the power of the MSM: it has no more power.

It is ignored, ridiculed, and accused. Its rampant guilt and unprofessional insobriety radiate sickly throughout the blogiverse of hostility toward its twisted dreams of grandeur.]

In the absence of a clear consensus on the purpose and merit of blogs, readers who are new to blogs may misjudge the roundups as measures of public opinion.

[VASPERS: I have no such fears. I believe that when a person visits a blog, nearly any blog at random, everything becomes perfectly clear very quickly. If a business executive gets a glazed look in their eyes, we must then probe the underlying narcissistic ego fixations that prevent new but simple technology from being successfully de-murked.]

To help readers access new and informed ideas in political debates, MSM sources may have to betray the democratizing potential of blogs, and take the risk of judging individual bloggers on their expertise and originality.

[VASPERS: Is there any other way to evaluate a blog?

Expertise and originality.

How about the blog's impact on exo-blog events? Or public perception?

I would consider external change, triggered by a blogger, or a group of bloggers, to be an adequate criteria. Did this blog contribute to a change in policy, ideology, or behavior? Did this blog spark something in society? Can this blog be considered an early instance of a specific trend? Or is this blog providing ideas and suggestions for a change that most analysts and commentators consider needful?]

The traditional media kept a watchful eye on political blogs during Judge Samuel Alito's Supreme Court confirmation hearings this month. Washingtonpost.com's "Who's Blogging?" feature tracked bloggers who linked to Post stories, as the site has done since fall 2005. NYtimes.com ran one of its sporadic blog roundups for the occasion. And Slate shifted the focus of its regular "Today's Blogs" column to the confirmation hearings.

The roundups delivered a heavy helping of stridently partisan blogs and threw in some nonpartisan legal blogs like SCOTUSBlog, but only a few moderate voices like Donklephant were included.

The roundups make American political debate look more stagnant, confusing and hopelessly narrow than it really is.

[VASPERS: Are we to be shocked that the MSM would deliberately make the blogosphere appear to be a dim and dumbed-down reflection of the real and substantial thing: themselves?]

How can a first-time blog reader tell the difference between bloggers trying to evolve new ideas and those trying to vindicate their preconceptions?

[VASPERS: By getting a sense of hidden agenda, a guiding purpose that seems pre-determined, like an overt attempt to make conservatives, or liberals, look like monsters of stupidity, hypocrisy, and selfishness.

This can be seen quite quickly in any political blog.

What I've seen, and it's clearly contrary to this, is a mutual admiration and cooperation between right and left bloggers. I see them blogrolling each other, respecting each others' investigative skills and devotion to what they believe is true and noble.]

Should he or she rely on the in-house bloggers of publications and political groups or the freestanding, unaffiliated citizens who supposedly define the medium?

[VASPERS: What is defining the medium? Is this article saying that the political blogospheria within the blogiverse is composed primarily of "freestanding, unaffiliated citizens", and this defines the blogosphere?

I don't see where this depiction comes from. I see bloggers of all stripes as typically firm-standing and very affiliated, if not with a political party (zzzzzzzzz), affiliated with a Cause, an Ideology, a Creed, a Position on Political Values and Goals.]

If roundups answer these questions more often, they will offer a powerful vehicle for introducing readers to blogs that offer more than simplistic partisanship.

[VASPERS: I really don't think the MSM has the credibility, creativity, or credentials to ever present the blog as it really is.]

A disconnected debate

It's true that the decisive lure of most popular political blogs is that they tell their readers what they want to hear and tend to acknowledge opposing ideas only to deride them.

[VASPERS: I wonder if Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, or Dean Esmay of Dean's World, would agree that they merely preach to the choir. Is this a fair description of "most popular political blogs"? It sounds more like something the MSM would say.]

Pete Welsch found empirical evidence of this tendency last year during his research as a graduate student at Indiana University. Welsch first analyzed two conservative blogs, Instapundit and Outspoken, and two progressive blogs, Eschaton and Mouse Musings.

[VASPERS: Deconstuctively speaking, a close reading here supplies this: the dichotomizing of "Conservative" vs. "Progressive". This dichotomy, this split, and the words used, are a partisan political act. To use "Progressive" instead of the usual "Liberal" is a slight aberration that needs to be accounted for. And why only Two? This cursed "two is better than one, thus no more than two are needed" philosophy of American party politics.]

He found that they rarely linked to the same sites -- or to sites that advocated the opposite political ideology. As he researched a wider sample, he did find liberal blogs linking to conservative ones and vice versa, but, Welsch says, "A lot of that is going to be one side liking [sic] to the other and saying, 'Look at this garbage.'"

[VASPERS: This is not my experience. I have seen more of a "on the wrong side of the political fence, but a great investigator, a sharp thinker, someone to match wits against" type of linking in political blogs.]

Political bloggers represent themselves and their like-minded readers. Editors of online blog roundups say they don't want to make their readers think otherwise. They just want to keep bloggers from stealing traffic and give readers access to a broader debate. But the latter can only work if MSM roundups lead readers to bloggers who think independently and draw on relevant experience and knowledge.

It is difficult to guide readers to a balanced list of blogs efficiently and maintain quality control at the same time, admits Jim Brady, executive editor of washingtonpost.com.

"The Post generates between 100-200 articles a day, and to have someone continually cruising the blogosphere to keep on top of things just isn't a good use of staff time," he said in an e-mail interview.

[VASPERS: Now we see the rampant laziness and blase attitude of a typical MSM rag: The washington post. Pathetic. Have they never heard of Technorati, Google Alerts, Pub Sub, RSS? But wait, I see a contradiction coming--they do use Technorati. Now I"m corn-fused.]

The Post's "Who's Blogging?" uses Technorati, a blog search engine, to gather links to blog posts that link back to Post stories. All a blogger has to do to get linked is register with Technorati and include a link to a given Post story. This usually yields a list that mixes insightful blogs in with boring ones. Many of the latter simply quote several paragraphs from stories and add a paragraph of their own comments, which are often predictably party-line.

"Sure, sometimes the blog posts don't add much to the story, but we're willing to accept that reality in exchange for being open to debate," Brady says. "We can't be accused of picking and choosing."

[VASPERS: Notice deconstructively attentive readers: "we can't be ACCUSED of...." It's the accusation they don't want, not the actual reality. Unconscious slip here.

A credible statement of ethical vision would have rendered the sentence: "we don't want to pick and choose based on any bias or pre-determined expectation."

A very shakey understanding of search engines is also in evidence here.]

Technorati also allows browsers to sort results by "authority" -- the most-linked-to blogs being the most authoritative. This at least rewards the blogs that readers (or other bloggers) consider most reliable, but it doesn't take into account other factors that constitute authority, like education, professional experience and demonstrated expertise.

[VASPERS: And are these noble qualities, and others like them, found in abundance at your rickety rackety old MSM?]

Those qualities would help, for example, when scanning comments on blogs linked to "Pushing the Limits of Wartime Powers," a news analysis that ran in the Post on Sunday, Dec. 18.

Roughly paraphrased, the liberal blog comments one stumbles across range from "President Bush thinks he is on a mission from God" to "President Bush is kind of like Big Brother" to "I hope President Bush gets impeached."

Of course, the Post linked to conservative blogs as well, but the liberal links just demonstrate the lack of originality and variety among blogs within either category.

[VASPERS: Er, just whose side is OJR on? Blogs must be worthless pieces of crap, a typical reader must be thinking right about now.]

At this point, more than a month later, there are many more posts linked to the story, and much more variety, but who's checking this late (except perhaps extremely dedicated blog readers)?

[VASPERS: Notice my dear deconstructivist close readers: "except perhaps extremely dedicated blog readers". What percentage of blog readers are casual, undevoted? If a blog reader faithfully visits a certain blog every day without fail, is that "extreme"? How about an "extremely dedicated newspaper reader"? How often do you have to read a newspaper to be considered "extreme" (hidden implication: "obsessed nut job").]

Nitpicking the blogosphere

While it is not impossible for a strictly partisan blog to provide insight, specialized blogs like SCOTUSblog consistently offer something more useful than the party line -- running expert commentary that would not fit into the typical consumer newspaper story.

Such blogs certainly exist to help legal experts talk with each other, but there's no reason that the average reader can't use them to supplement traditional media stories with technical and historical detail.

[VASPERS: No. Blogs are not "supplements". It's the MSM that's being pushed to the periphery, to the edge of uselessness, out on the fringes of anyone's lifestyle, being put out to pasture like a dying and aged horse.]

Slate's daily blog roundup, "Today's Blogs," seems most effective at guiding readers to those supplements -- and it provides a model for other roundups. Writers hand-pick links on a few selected issues each day, and also provide background information, if available, about those bloggers.

[VASPERS: "background information, if available"? Why would you even consider rounding up an anonymous blog, unless it's in a nation where free thought blogging is repressed and punished? With few exceptions, every blog should include a decent About or Profile page. This is mandatory for credibility and transparency.]

This guides new blog readers through a muddle of pseudonyms, anonymity and conjecture to bloggers who just might know what they're talking about.

[VASPERS: "bloggers who JUST MIGHT know..." is another diparaging remark, an anti-blog, blogopathic utterance.]

It's also crucial to serving a Web-only magazine's audience, which tends to know more about blogs.

You have to kind of separate the wheat from the chaff," says "Today's Blogs" editor Rachael Larimore. "We want people to know that they can come to us and find out what an authoritative blogger is saying."

Larimore says this makes Slate more friendly to readers who aren't used to blogs. "We don't like to assume that our readers are familiar with everyone," she said.

The New York Times can be picky as well, having offered blog roundups only sporadically.

Two recent roundups accompanied stories that involved criticism of The Times itself -- the jailing and testimony of Times reporter Judith Miller in October and The Times' revelation last month that President Bush had authorized the National Security Agency to perform wiretaps without obtaining warrants.

Whoever organized the Miller-related roundup seems to have paid attention to bloggers' qualifications, judging by the first three blogs linked to: Talking Points Memo by Washington Monthly writer Joshua Micah Marshall; First Draft by Tim Porter, whose resume includes 16 years as an editor at the San Francisco Examiner; and DavidCorn.com by David Corn, author of "The Lies of George W. Bush."

Corn and Marshall have their politics tattooed on their virtual faces, but they accompany their ideological assertions with observation and informed analysis.

The Times' most recent roundup, as of this writing, accompanied its coverage of the Alito hearings. The linked blogs again appear to be hand-picked; many do not even link to Times coverage.

This approach seemed to reveal the most variety, especially on the third night of the hearings.

The Times roundup included posts on a variety of issues ranging from abortion to the small legal and procedural technicalities of the hearings. But to get the same variety on Washingtonpost.com, readers had to skim through each separate Post story on the hearings.

A Post story that focused on questions about Alito's views on abortion, for example, linked only to posts that discussed that specific story and emphasized abortion.

Sure, Slate and The Times can be accused of picking and choosing, but that doesn't preclude variety or openness. On the contrary, a well-maintained blog roundup seems to give readers access to a wider political spectrum. And, because blogs are so easily accessible, a well-focused roundup might help publications encourage their readers' curiosity.

Few readers will put down the newspaper to look for the latest number of Harvard Law Review, but they might be willing to click away to a blog like SCOTUSblog for a few minutes of helpful elaboration.

Larimore says she and other Slate writers keep their own lists of blogs to check regularly, supplemented by Technorati searches and Google blog searches. The disadvantage of manual roundups is that they require more time and resources -- and so can only be included with a few stories. In that sense, the hand-picked roundups won't be as valuable to readers who want to explore the broadest possible range of opinions on the broadest possible range of news. Automated roundups may still be useful to readers when MSM sources are unable to offer hand-picked roundups.

Rallying the troops, ignoring the moderates

Markos Moulitsas of DailyKos and Kathryn Jean Lopez of The National Review's The Corner blog agree on at least one thing: They represent only themselves and perhaps some of their readers.

"'General public' people probably aren't watching the [Alito] hearings at all, because even some of our political-minded types have been dozing off," Lopez said in an e-mail as she blogged on the hearings. She added: "People often tell me they come to us on National Review Online to find out 'what conservatives are thinking.' Sometimes, that proves more difficult -- and interesting -- than they thought, because even us conservatives -- even those sitting around the same editorial table (real or cyber) -- are not monolith on a whole host of issues."

But Moulitsas says: "Every blog focuses on particular subject matter and hence attracts a like-minded audience. That's all you'd ever be able to measure."

By linking to these partisan voices (even if they are more complicated than expected, as Lopez suggests), political blog roundups tend to exaggerate the perception that American voters are firmly divided along party lines. Roundups acknowledge non-partisan and moderate blogs, but not as often as they link to stridently partisan blogs.

Justin Gardner, leader of the ideologically mixed group blog Donklephant, thinks Americans are more often centrist than party-line, and he hopes blogs and blog roundups will eventually reflect that. "I like the position that we're in," he says of Donklephant. "We don't have to rally the troops sometimes when we know that the poll numbers aren't what we would want."

CNN Internet Reporter Jacki Shechner, who primarily talks about stalwart right- and left-wing blogs during her short blog segments on "The Situation Room," said centrist bloggers don't get enough coverage. "I think we'd be remiss if we didn't start including them some more," she said.

New connections

Though they too often show new blog readers a narrow spectrum of ideas, roundups might reinforce the role of traditional news outlets while improving the debate for those already immersed in blogs.

Technorati CEO David Sifry hopes roundups will at least help bloggers and established journalists share traffic and ideas. "This is actually a synergistic relationship and not a parasitic relationship," Sifry said.

As third-party monitors, mainstream news sources can also increase communication among bloggers who wall themselves off with RSS feeds and one-sided blogrolls. Laer Pearce of the conservative Cheat-Seeking Missiles, who was linked in a Times roundup, says he'll pay more attention to such features in the future, if only to explore the blog world outside of his own ideological circle.

Roundups can enrich debate by encouraging both new blog readers and bloggers themselves to digest conflicting and nuanced opinions. "I'm more apt to add blogs I like to [my RSS feed] than ones that I don't," e-mails Pearce. "That's a mistake, because intellectual honesty, not to mention fresh ideas, depends on exposing yourself to a broad diversity of views." This all seems obvious, but it's a good reminder that even a medium with the potential to open debate can give people tunnel vision.

Links to this article: Technorati, Yahoo.


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