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Day May 11, 2004

Blogs, Journalism, and Democracy: George Packer’s Misunderstanding

George Packer’s article in Mother Jones, “The Revolution Will Not Be Blogged,” is a fascinating commentary on political blogging by a professional print journalist. Packer confesses to being fascinated by and “addicted” to political blogs.

Yet the overall tone of his article is disapproving, and his fascination the fascination of someone who can’t take their eyes off a horrifying scene. Packer claims that since blogs are numerous and “easy to consume” this makes them “addictive — that is, both pleasurable and destructive.” Yes, he thinks political blogs are destructive. The volume of blogging and the speed of update means that “far more is written than needs to be said about any one thing.”

Reading further, one starts to understand Packer’s real issue — blogs encroach on the territory of traditional print “opinion” journalism. And this, one gets the feeling, is territory that Packer holds dear. He goes on to discuss how blogs simply don’t measure up as opinion journalism, essentially because they lack many of the professional characteristics we expect in print journalism.

All of which may be true, if you accept the premise that political blogs are really journalism — either by intent or in the result. Of course, as blogging has received attention in this campaign, there are plainly some “professional” blogs and bloggers. Kevin Drum, formerly Calpundit, now is the “front page” blog for the Washington Monthly. Packer rightly credits Drum’s work in probing the national guard records earlier this year — Kevin did analyze the public record much more deeply than “professionals” working the story. But these are the exception, not the rule. Ranging from my not-widely-read blog to giants in the political blogging community like Atrios, most bloggers are doing something different. Far from being “bad for democracy” (as the lurid lead-in on WBUR radio’s website says) , we are engaging in democracy, in its most elemental form.

In a nation with 300+ million individuals, it’s no longer simple for each of us to connect directly with other voters, except within our personal circle. The ability of the population to engage in a real dialogue about politics is drastically reduced in the days since Madison, Hamilton and John Jay took their constitutional case directly to the people in the Federalist Papers. Most people in this country do not personally know their senators, congresspeople, or even their state representatives. Our “views” are heard, if at all, in the form of opinion polls. Reasoning, argumentation, and deliberation are gone from the process, above the most local of levels. Political deliberation, as an essential civic act, has given way to “broadcast” politics where parties and candidates use one-way media to repeatedly blast their message in the hopes that we’ll choose message/candidate/issue A over B in the voting booth.

And I would contend that with the lack of two-way discussion and deliberation, we’ve lost something. We’ve lost the ability to bring a community into accord on the facts and options surrounding complex issues. And nearly all of the issues facing us are complex. Consequently, voters listen to small snippets of news, or advertisements, or speeches, and decide what and whom to support. As a result, our options and positions must be simple enough to gain support without extensive deliberation. And as a direct result, we cannot give politicans the support needed to tackle complex issues (such as civil rights, war, or social security) with realistically deep solutions. Anything that helps us break this destructive cycle is welcome, in my view.

I’m not sure of the motivations of my fellow bloggers, but I know that I’m thoroughly enjoying the experience of blogging this election. It gives me several benefits and pleasures. First, the act of writing helps me work through the complex issues and codify my thinking. Second, the social aspect of blogging (in terms of trackbacks and cross-references) creates something like a community in which we are confronted by those who don’t always agree with us. True, blogs tend to organize into self-reinforcing groups — perjoratively called “echo chambers” — but this is equally true of any ideologically oriented media. And it’s true that sometimes disagreement devolves into “comment flames,” but it’s equally true that complexities get discussed and understood.

If most political blogging were intended as journalism, it would fail along just the lines that Packer outlines. But if political blogging is a more complex phenomenon, part informational, part the building of like-minded community groups that cross-cut traditional voting boundaries, and part deliberative discussion, then Packer is missing the point entirely.

Blogging won’t have a completely transformative effect on this election, but nor will it be inconsequential. What bloggers have done in this election is use a simple technology to provide a deliberative, discussion-oriented addition (not just alternative) to the one-way “broadcast” media that dominate the landscape of democracy. To me, that’s not destructive, that’s healthy.

If you wonder how healthy, ask yourself this question:

If Madison, Jefferson, and Patrick Henry could put in a guest appearance today, would they be encouraged or horrified at the “broadcast” nature of political debate? Would they be encouraged or horrified at the prospect of tools which allow a nation of many millions to speak directly with each other in civic debate and deliberation?

Random Notes from London

I’m in London for a couple of days on business, and haven’t had time to write anything substantial. I do, however, really love this city. During some down time today, I wandered through Westminster Abbey, and lit a candle near the graves of Darwin and Issac Newton. The architecture is just incredible — the arches, the stained glass, the old wood, and the graves in the floor that are so old that the inscriptions are unreadable. I have to admit, the whole thing gave me a lump in the throat.

Gin and tonics are better here, because the tonic is real “Indian tonic” instead of the overly sweet stuff we get in America. People smoke everywhere, although they do seem to be getting better at segregating it for the benefit of non-smokers. But they really gotta work on breakfast — in my world, scrambled eggs shouldn’t have so much liquid they need a bowl.

Fortunately, good coffee seems to have invaded as well. So I’ll live.

And the Economist has a bookstore on Regent’s Street.