TJ | 30th Sep, 2009

The Decline of Political Blogging

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For several months now I have pondered a question: is blogging worth it? By worth it I mean is blogging providing the kind of alternative journalism that it promised five years ago or has it become the Internet equivalent of talk radio where people spew their rants about pet issues, more often than not preaching to a choir all singing the same tune?

Note that when I speak of blogs, I am referring to what those who keep score in the blogging world–Technorati and its ilk–refer to as political blogs.  Only three political blogs appear in the top 30 Technorati blogs and two of them are blogs I have sworn to never name here because I do not wish to add to their links (more on that in a minute). The other is run by CNN.

One of those two blogs is run by a lady with lots of money who hires well-known journalists to write for her. To show the kind of money we are talking about, this spring the site announced it would spend $1.75 million to hire ten writers to do stories on the financial crisis.  If you have your cell phone calculator handy–or unlike me you can do the math in your head–that is $175,000 per writer.

So who are these journalists who will provide a new perspective on the economy? Surprise, surprise, they all come from the mainstream media–places like the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, CBS, the LA Times, the Wall Street Journal. Predictably the mainstream media from whence these folks come has fallen all over itself praising the effort, many commentators  openly admitting they see it as a venture that will keep them employed.

And what kind of people are these folks investigating an economic crisis that has disproportionately hit the poor and people of color? Of the ten faces on the project website nine are white, although one of the white faces has a Hispanic surname. The come from Harvard, Northwestern University, Columbia University, Princeton, Oxford.

But the real story is none of them have been bloggers. You would think after years of political blogging that the lady with Prada purse full of money might have looked to blogdom to find one or two of her staff, after all it has been those of us in blogdom who have broken a fair number of the investigative stories not only about the economy but also the Iraq War and other major events.

This is not merely a petty quarrel. The mainstream media cultivate and work with different sources than bloggers. There are blogs like this one that do extensive research on issues and publish it in long pieces no one in the mainstream media will touch.  Then there are blogs who have extensive grassroots ties to real people, because many of them are written by real people who have experienced this crisis firsthand.

As for the other blog ranked in the top thirty, it had so many blockquotes that I had to get out my tape measure and see how much of its content was original.  The lead story on September 30 was almost half blockquotes. The grey boxes march down the page after that lead piece, making up more than half the content, marking this as America’s premier cut-and-paste site.

In summary, what passes for political blogging in the eyes of many Americans is either bankroll journalism or cut and paste jobs.

The Decline of Individually-Authored Blogs

Meanwhile individually authored political blogs like this one are on the decline. In part this is because most of the ratings systems now dominating blogging crudely measure quantity not quality. By that measure, those newspapers and magazines you see on the grocery store racks are the best American journalism has to offer.

There is also an uglier side to the story. Blogging takes time which is why years ago someone coined the term “pajamas media” to describe bloggers, who tended to work in the wee hours of the morning because that was the only time they had free.  But you can only do that so long before you burn out.

The real name of the game is money. You will notice that most highly-rated blogs, whether political or otherwise take ads.  For many political blogs these tend to come from like-minded ideological sources. Lots of them make use of ad programs from Google and other Internet giants, which, also rate those same blogs and their posts. It is as if CBS were in bed with Nielsen.  Only a few die-hards refuse to accept ads.

The other nasty story is what surfaced several years ago as what I term the Great Freeze Out. What I term the Big Dogs, the political blogs with lots of readers, decided to stop listing the rest of us on their blogrolls. This has now moved to an unspoken, but obvious policy of not linking to or quoting from any of the small blogs.

Finally, there is the mainstream media which has always looked down on blogs. However, on occasion they do stoop to interview or quote a blogger and I don’t need to tell you which ones they quote from because you watch and read the same news I do.  The media seems to feel that a high Technorati ranking means that a blog is a reliable source. Funny, but they don’t do that with their own media, quoting from those grocery store magazines or the National Inquirer.

Or they just quote from their own blogs. Perhaps the most significant recent development in blogging has been the mainstream media’s embracing the philosophy, “if you can’t beat them; join them.” Now virtually every newspaper, network, pundit, political commentator has a blog. And, like the Big Dogs, they seem loathe to quote from other blogs. This has developed the subtle art of dropping links into comments into a high art.

Twittering, Texting and Other Assorted Babbling

The decline of blogs also has come with the rise of so-called social media like Twitter and Facebook. Where a few years ago a celebrity or sports figure or best-selling author might have had a blog, now they Twitter and Facebook post with their “friends.”

The name is appropriate, because twittering is exactly what it is, the sound of so many birds chirping in the trees.  As you no doubt know a so-called “tweet” is limited to 140 CHARACTERS or less. Can you say anything meaningful with that limit? Perhaps, but you could not even fit a haiku in that space.

Facebook is no different. But people seem to have an insatiable hunger for what their friends are eating for lunch and not much hunger for more meaty fare that might help them to understand why their house was foreclosed or they lost their job.

But what worries me about Facebook and Twitter is what is going on behind the scenes. Both are America’s largest data-gathering resources. Now this is not the 1984ish stuff we used get all worried about–not yet–the data they gather is aggregate data. So by data-mining all those tweets, they can tell those big corporations what people think about their latest product. They can spot social trends and feed them to clothing designers or advertising execs.  In short your tweets help corporate America position itself, as they say in the ad business.

Twitter and Facebook are corporate America’s fondest dreams come true. Fifty years ago the originators of modern media advertising dreamed of some day having electrodes planted in people’s skulls so they could gauge their reactions to everything. Twitter and Facebook bring them pretty close to that dream.

The Decline of Blog Influence

We may look back on the Howard Dean campaign as the high point in political blogging, because during the 2008 election, blogs appeared to have little impact. Instead both Presidential candidates put together their own blogs and social networks, bypassing the political blogs altogether.

In fact, last year the number one political blog in America was not either of the two sites cited above, but Barack Obama’s. According to a Washington Post interview with his online gurus,  Obama has 13 million email addresses, one million signed up to receive text messages, and two million profiles on MyBarackObama.com.  This helped him to raise a record $500 million from his online operations.

Not coincidentally Twitter and Facebook became the real important political sites in 2008, after all, what do you care what some blogger has to say about the campaign when you can ask your “friends.”  This, of course, only serves to reinforce your prejudices rather than enlarge your mind.

One of the best pieces on the role of blogs in 2008 came from the right:

I suppose it was unrealistic to expect that the political blogosphere might make some positive contributions to the 2008 election campaign. But judging by the smears and lies that are either created by bloggers or are simply echoed again and again on websites both right and left, along with the painfully shallow emphasis on whatever bloggers can blow up into a “gaffe” by hugely exaggerating some minor misstatement by either candidate, one is left with the sad conclusion that most blogs are contributing absolutely nothing of substance to this election.

While the nation is going through an economic crisis, trying to decide the best course of action in Iraq, and wrestling with serious questions of war, peace, and financial security, blogs as a whole are concerned with either promoting or knocking down the latest smear from their opponents. Or, even worse, trivializing the utterances of both candidates so that the elections seems more about the best way to make the opposition look bad by blowing a statement out of all sensible proportion while, at the same time, accusing the candidate of all manner of hair raising-perfidy.

Perhaps it is time to pause and ask “Is this the best blogs can do?”

The Big Picture

For some time now I have been writing about what I have termed the Era of Bad Feelings. My belief is that this hatred has been fueled by the increasing intellectual isolation of the American people. If you get all your news from Faux, Twitter with fellow Bill O’Reilly fans, and read the Faux blog, you are not going to have an open mind about Barack Obama.

Blogs once promised to open up this intellectual isolation, but instead they have had the opposite impact. They have helped to feed it. Left wingers read left wing blogs and right wingers read right wing blogs. The blogs they read do not publish thoughtful pieces but rants by various “diarists.” The do not open minds so much as slam the door shut on them.

The major question facing this country in this new millennium is not housing or health care or the economy or Afghanistan, but intellectual. As major publishers have fallen and those that remain publish mostly rubbish, as thoughtful journals turn to cover stories on Brittany Spears to stay afloat, as the television documentary has died, what made America great is in danger of atrophying, for make no mistake about it, what made this nation great was intellectual freedom and with it intellectual diversity.

This country was always on the cutting edge whether in fields like science and medicine or the arts or in research in the humanities and social sciences. People from around the world came to American colleges and universities seeking access to the creative minds that spawned these ideas.  But as Emerson said over a century ago, ideas need fertile soil if they are to sprout and unfortunately the intellectual equivalent of a Great Depression Dust Storm has swept over American intellectual life.

As always, the fate of this country lies in the hands of its people. Will we twitter away the next century while the rest of the world passes us by because there are nations and people out there who seem to understand what made us great better than we do at the moment? The choice is up to you.

Coda: A Look In the Mirror

Most of you who visit this blog from time to time notice the lack of posts over the past few months. Part of it has been health-related, but a larger part has been questioning whether any of this is worthwhile. I ask myself has any post changed anything for the better? Yes, I can point to rankings, hits, Google citations, but what policy impacts have any of these pieces had?

The answer is none. Currently I find myself involved in several state and local initiatives that I hope will improve my community and my country. All of them are about doing something.  So faced with only so much time, I have to ask which is more worthwhile–having some impact or continuing to spew into the ether?

After two months of thought I have decided that it is more important to DO something than to write about someone else doing it. So I will be cutting way back on new pieces. And, no, I won’t be twittering or posting on Facebook.

In the end I have a strange request for those of you reading this essay: quit reading this blog, quit twittering, and get out and DO something. We need to take back out country before it is too late.

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