Why I love the internet-2: Bypassing the official pundits

Yesterday I discussed how blogs and other forms of alternative media on the internet prevented Stephen Colbert’s speech to the White House Correspondents Association Dinner from being ignored. But that is not the only benefit of the internet. The more important innovation may be the rise of blogs as alternative and better sources of news analysis and commentary.

Some time ago, I was on the Cleveland PBS show Feagler and Friends along with Plain Dealer editor Doug Clifton discussing the future of newspapers in the age of the internet and blogs. Neither Clifton nor Feagler seemed very knowledgeable about blogs (for example, they seemed to think that Wikipedia was a blog), which surprised me, since blogs are rapidly becoming a major force in, for want of a better name, the alternative media.

Clearly these two people with long histories in traditional newspapers were worried that the internet would speed the demise of newspapers, which are already suffering declines in readership, especially among younger readers. But their criticisms of blogs were somewhat ill-informed and seemed to be based on a stereotype of bloggers as ignorant ranters. They did (correctly) point out that any one can create a website and self-publish, even anonymously, and that there was no quality control as to whether what was said on a blog was reliable or not, whereas newspaper reports and columns had to pass through several editorial layers before seeing the light of day. But their inference that hence blogs should not be taken seriously and might even be harmful was not justified.

In my response, I said that there would always be room for the traditional journalist, the person who gets the primary information. We need people with trained reporting skills to be out there interviewing people, witnessing events, asking questions, obtaining documents, etc. So this role of the traditional media will likely remain, although even here there are independent people who are taking advantage of the access that the internet provides to become independent journalists providing first-hand reports. (I am thinking of people like Dahr Jamail who has been doing some good original reporting from Iraq.) Of course, such freelancers are more limited in their access to official figures because of their lack of credentials and uncertain financial support, but this might conversely work in their favor since they are more likely to go off the beaten track and report non-official news.

But I think that where the internet and blogs are really going to change things is with the traditional national newspaper columnists. People like George Will, Maureen Dowd, Charles Krauthammer, Thomas Friedman, David Brooks, and Richard Cohen are rapidly becoming dinosaurs whose days are numbered.

To see why this is so, we need to understand why the media hire and support these pundits. The standard reason is that columnists are expected to provide perspective and insights on the news, and be able to translate complex policy issues into more readily understandable form. It is assumed that these are people with broad experience who study news events, have access to background information on them, and thus can tell the rest of us (who are presumably too busy with out lives to study the issues) what the news means and what should be done.

In actual practice, none of the above-named columnists have any more expertise on the news than you or me. It is not obvious to me that they even study the issues more than the rest of us. There are rare exceptions. Paul Krugman is a professional economist and thus is in a good position to analyze complex budgetary and fiscal issues and reports. But most columnists do not have that kind of expert and detailed knowledge. They just glibly pontificate.

Maureen Dowd’s snarky humor quickly wears thin and is downright irritating. Has David Broder, the supposed dean of newspaper columnists and a so-called ‘liberal,’ said anything of real interest in the last twenty years? Can anyone follow David Brook’s leaps of logic? Isn’t it obvious that Charles Krauthammer’s extremely partisan ideology colors everything he says? For how long can George Will’s bow tie and pompous phrasings hide the vacuousness of his thought? And what on earth are Thomas Friedman’s banalities supposed to mean?

Listen to such people closely as they discuss things like tax cuts. They give only a quick nod to the actual details of the policy or its impact. They rarely talk hard numbers or work through detailed implications of actual policies, They quickly shift the debate to personnel, politics, and style, addressing such questions as: Will the new policy (whatever it is) help the President/Republican/Democrat fortunes? Will the public support it? How should they sell it? How will it affect the next elections? What do the polls say and what does it mean? And so on.

But the real purpose served by such columnists is to serve as guardians of the boundaries of acceptable debate, and thus thought. Think of them as like sheepdogs with us, the public, as sheep. Their job is to make sure that all our articulated opinions stay within a certain range. So people like Cohen and Dowd and Broder, by being identified as liberals, serve as the ‘liberal’ goal posts and Will, Krauthammer, and Brooks similarly serve as the ‘conservative’ goal posts. (Friedman occupies his own weird space.) They are the people who define ‘mainstream’ or ‘moderate’ opinion. So liberals are supposed to take their cues from liberal commentators and conservatives from their standard bearers. As long as we stay within the boundaries of thought defined by these people, we are allowed to participate in the discussion. But step outside these defined boundaries, and you are labeled an extremist and kicked out of the game.

Take for example, Iraq. Before the war began, the acceptable range of opinion was that Iraq and its leaders were undoubtedly evil and needed to be replaced, the motives of the Bush administration were good and honorable, and the only issues up for debate was whether more diplomacy and time should be allowed for Hussein’s overthrow or an immediate attack launched. Cohen and William Raspberry (another so-called ‘liberal’ columnist) both swooned with admiration over Colin Powell’s disgraceful and now thoroughly discredited speech to the UN and announced that they were now convinced that attacking Iraq was the right thing to do, thus serving notice to all people who considered themselves liberals that they should get on the war-wagon or be considered ‘outside the mainstream.’

Now that the Iraq debacle has occurred, the range of allowed opinion has shifted slightly to say that the information on which the war was based was flawed and the implementation was bad, but what we should debate now is how to solve the problem that has been created.

It was not allowed at any time to make a more fundamental case and argue that the attack on Iraq was an act of unprovoked aggression on a country that had never attacked, or even threatened, the US, that the motives of the Bush administration were never honorable, that they repeatedly and deliberately lied and misled the public about the evidence, and that the key perpetrators should be impeached and tried for war crimes. Such talk was, and still is, not allowed in polite company. Say things like that and you are shunned and outside the game.

Thus the role of the columnists is to keep the discussion within ‘safe’ boundaries. As a result people who had sharper criticisms of policies tended to keep quiet about them for fear of being labeled an extremist or worse. And before the days of the internet, such people were completely isolated and thus it was easy to keep them quiet.

But not anymore.

Next: How blogs have dramatically changed the pundit game

POST SCRIPT: And now, the Rapture video game!

About a year ago, I posted a series of items (here, here, and here) about the blood and gore aspects of the rapture based on the Left Behind series of books and suggested in a comment on Mark Wilson’s blog that it contained all the elements necessary to make a violent video game. Mark subsequently reported that such a game was actually in the works.

Well, it turns out that the game Left Behind: Eternal Forces has been created and is going to be marketed for the coming Christmas season. This website reviews the game and its creators and describes the goals of the game:

Imagine: you are a foot soldier in a paramilitary group whose purpose is to remake America as a Christian theocracy, and establish its worldly vision of the dominion of Christ over all aspects of life. You are issued high-tech military weaponry, and instructed to engage the infidel on the streets of New York City. You are on a mission – both a religious mission and a military mission — to convert or kill Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, gays, and anyone who advocates the separation of church and state – especially moderate, mainstream Christians.

Ah, yes, there’s nothing that captures the spirit of Christmas more than murdering all those who disagree with your own extreme vision of it. I don’t know about the wisdom of their choice of city, though. In real life, Christian warriors might be hopelessly outnumbered by their enemies in New York City. I’m guessing that the number of gays alone would be enough to rout the rapturites. They should perhaps start with a more realistic location (say Topeka, Kansas) and hone their killing skills before taking on the core of the Big Apple.

Here’s the official website for the game. Its creators are apparently connected to Rick Warren, author of the book The Purpose Driven Life.

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