December 23, 2006

Read on, imbeciles

Joseph Rago, who is "an assistant editorial features editor at The Wall Street Journal", took over Joseph Conrad's observation that newspapers are "written by fools to be read by imbeciles" and transfers it to weblogs ("The Blog Mob", 12/20/2006). After a litany of complaints about the many faults of blogs, Rago sheds editorial tears over the "lost [journalistic] establishment" that "has over centuries accumulated a major institutional culture that screens editorially for originality, expertise and seriousness". Chris Muir commented in graphical form on the editorial screening part:

(A more charitable interpretation might have given Rago credit for omitting the period on purpose, as an emblem of his grief.)

Eugene Volokh commented in a more substantive vein:

[I]f you asked me whether I'd put more trust in (1) a randomly selected article from a randomly selected newspaper or (2) a randomly selected post on the same topic from a randomly selected blog, I'd probably choose the newspaper. I imagine that the average newspaper writer has somewhat more training in accurate writing, and feels somewhat more pressure to be accurate, than the average blogger.

But I don't read either randomly selected blogs or randomly selected newspapers, and neither does anyone else. And if you ask me whom I'd trust more on coverage of sentencing law and policy, Sentencing Law and Policy or the New York Times, I'd surely choose the blog, since it's written by one of the nation's foremost experts on sentencing law and policy. More broadly, if you ask me whom I'd trust more on news analysis (not so much raw news, but news analysis) related to topics that I'm interested in, I'd probably say bloggers rather than newspapers: On those topics I care about, I'm familiar with who the best bloggers are, and on balance those best bloggers tend to be more expert (and more aware of the danger that if they err, they'll be promptly contradicted) than reporters at even the best newspapers.

And isn't that the way we deal with most media? We love books not because the average book is great, but because we've found the best authors (from our perspective), and their work is great. Likewise, judging blogs by the "average blogger" or even by "most bloggers" makes as much sense as condemning books as boring because 99% of all books will surely bore you.

It's gratifying that Prof. Volokh uses Language Log as a positive example, in his opening paragraphs:

Are blogs bad? Or are they good? Well, are books bad, or are they good? How about newspapers? Conversations?

Some blogs are good, some are bad. A few provide very good reports of breaking specialty news (e.g., How Appealing). Some provide very good expert commentary on topics that few journalists know much about (e.g., Language Log). Some provide very good commentary by thoughtful people (e.g., Virginia Postrel's Dynamist), even outside relatively technical areas. Some provide high-quality selection services, pointing readers to interested sources they might otherwise have missed (e.g., InstaPundit and GeekPress). The overwhelming majority are of no interest to me or to most people — but that's true of books, too, and you don't see me ranting about how books are all tripe or all boring (even though most of them are).

Meanwhile there are some things in Mr. Rago's screed that made me wonder what blogs he reads, if any. For example:

Every conceivable belief is on the scene, but the collective prose, by and large, is homogeneous: A tone of careless informality prevails; posts oscillate between the uselessly brief and the uselessly logorrheic; complexity and complication are eschewed; the humor is cringe-making, with irony present only in its conspicuous absence; arguments are solipsistic; writers traffic more in pronouncement than persuasion . . .

Ironically, I was working on a self-critical post about writing things that are too complex, too didactic and (especially) too ironic, faults that I feel I share with most of the other bloggers that I read regularly.

In any case, I'm glad to see that Mr. Rago is cheerleading for "the technology of ink on paper" and its digital reflections. As we've often had occasion to remark, the traditional media have enormous promise as sources of information, but this promise will remain unfulfilled until journalists can find a way to impose some of the elementary standards of accuracy and accountability that we take for granted in the blogosphere.

Posted by Mark Liberman at December 23, 2006 01:11 PM