Ben on Blogging

Ben Fowler recently opined on blogging. Unfortunately he did a pretty poor job of it, and doesn’t seem inclined to provide corrections on his own; and given it was probably in response to something I wrote, I’m inclined to offer some rebuttals.

Ben’s first mistake, is that he neglected to offer any external links in his entire discussion. While that’s common in professional journalism, it’s very poor form in blogging. It’s also one of the wins of blogging: it makes it very easy for the reader to refer to sources and form his or her own opinion. So let’s provide the context Ben didn’t: here are some of the posts that Ben’s presumably refering to.

Ben is attempting to refute the promise of blogging for bypassing conventional media and giving the unwashed masses a hope of getting news unfiltered by an elite agenda. His first tack is this:

It is the job of the professional journalist to gather news, interpret it and present it. They operate in a highly-evolved (but nonetheless imperfect) environment of standards of fairness, even-handedness and integrity. […]

It does not appear to me that bloggers feel the need to do as much fact-checking or be as honest or fair as conventional media, nor would they expect to be, since blogs tend to be, by their very nature, highly subjective.

This is an exceedingly odd time to be proclaiming the fairness, even-handedness and integrity of professional journalism. We have the Jason Blair scandal at the New York Times, the News We Kept to Ourselves scandal at CNN, the sexed up reporting scandal currently unfolding at the BBC, and biassed coverage by the ABC. Or, without quite the same currency, perhaps the review of Walter Duranty’s Pulitzer Prize for covering up the death of millions for access to a dictator might raise an eyebrow. On the other hand, if you’re looking for bias in big media that’s paraded proudly instead of cowering in shame, surely you don’t need to look any further than Fox News?

It’s probably impossible to reliably get an unbiassed newsfeed: at the very least as soon as you get an audience, you have to strongly resist random folks trying to use your influence to spread their personal views, whether they be reporters, anchors, or management. And on the other hand, most people tend to prefer getting news that matches their own prejudices, so that news reporters have an incentive to add at least some bias; whether that be to always mentions the costs of activities in Iraq (“this boy lost his arm in today’s targetted bombing”), or to evaluate events primarily in their larger-scale impact (“today’s targetted bombing is aimed at reducing the effectiveness of Saddam’s command and control capabilities in Southern Iraq”). (Both example quotes are purely hypothetical)

Ben continues:

To attempt to assimilate and understand the news in an objective way, a reader would have to read a vast amount of material and then draw his own conclusions. This is unlikely, because most of us have lives and jobs, we tend to read material that we agree with, and bloggers tend to move in packs (the war-bloggers being a decent example).

I was watching The West Wing when the first plane struck the World Trade Centre on 2001-9-11, and flicked to the news on another channel during an ad break when no one yet had any good idea what was happening. I spent the next few hours switching between various news channels (CNN, Fox, BBC, Sky and rebroadcasts of the same on the free-to-air stations) and swearing and speculating on IRC. Over the next week or so I started watching TV news a little more regularly, and got addicted to reading the ABC website and the CNN website. I maintained at least the ABC habit up until discovering the wonders of blogs; and at this point I tend to get my news from Tim Blair’s blog and InstaPundit. I’m also inclined to believe I’m much better informed, and I’m definitely able to form much more coherent opinions about current events than before, probably because both those sites have a much broader range of news sources than I did, and appear to be much better at selecting interesting news and opinion than both ABC and CNN.

Naturally, your mileage may vary.

This leads into Ben’s next claim:

Of course, a typical example would be Tim Blair, a washed up journalist reject who was once hired by the Australian ABC, laughably, as a ‘right-wing Phillip Adams’. It turned out that Tim Blair didn’t make the cut and had his contract not renewed. The poor sod now runs a very popular blog (where he gets to bash Aunty and sneer at Arabs and little-L liberals), which of course suits everybody right down to the ground, because he is no longer restricted by journalistic rules of fair play, fact-checking, intellectual honesty and the like, and most normal people can safely ignore him.

Failing to link to Tim Blair’s site here is a pretty egregious sin — surely we want to encourage our readers to be able to check our facts, to ensure we’re not going to get away with just making shit up, right?

Anyway, way back in the day (June 2002), Tim wrote the following entry:

RUN FOR your lives! Genetically-modified seeds are coming! They’ll destroy us all!

That was the tone of The 7.30 Report’s piece last week on GM seeds and their unholy menace. Reporter Sarah Clarke located a GM victim:

PERCY SCHEMEISER, CANADIAN CANOLA FARMER: It has destroyed our market of canola in many countries of the world.

All of the European common market will not buy one bushel of canola from us. That means 30 per cent of our exports have been lost just to Europe alone.

SARAH CLARKE: Canadian farmer, Percy Schmeiser became a GM canola producer by accident.

His crop was contaminated by pollen from a neighbouring genetically modified crop.

Any complaints he may have had were steamrolled by Monsanto, which successfully sued to seize his crop.

PERCY SCHEMEISER: I lost it all to a contamination because a judge ruled in my case it doesn’t matter how Monsanto’s genetically modified canola gets on my land or any farmers land.

SARAH CLARKE: Australian farmers are now being warned by Percy Schmeiser that they too could become victims of genetic contamination.

Did The 7.30 Report research Mr. Schmeister’s claims? Far from being a tragic target of the genetically-modified seed bullies, a court in Canada found that he’d used GM seed without payment. The claim that his crop had been accidentally contaminated was convincingly refuted. Schmeister is a common seed fraud.

Fair play? Intellectual honesty? Fact checking? It’s a common saying in the computer security industry that the illusion of security is worse than no security. Is the illusion of integrity so much better in news reporting?

For reference, the court’s determinations on the facts contradict Schmeiser’s claims. This particular example is of interest to me since I’d read about it a number of times from a number of sources (slashdot and The Register particularly) and was reasonably incensed about it, which I would not have been had my sources not been either incompetent or dishonest.

Ben continues, rather incoherently:

[…] Any dickhead with an agenda can set up a blog, and they often do.

This probably explains the very large right-wing pundit and blogger community: it’s an extension of Alan Jones or John Laws (Rush Limbaugh for the Americans).

Ben seems to have completely missed the large left-wing pundit and blogger community he participates in, advogato. Most techy blogs out there are pretty left-wing as far as I can see: slandering Howard or Bush, or decrying the “overarching greed” of corporations, hoping for government funding, or getting arrested at protests. Outside of Advogato there’re plenty of other lefty techy blogs, but I’m not in the mood to look for links.

And hey, there’s nothing wrong with any of that — one of the benefits of blogging is that it’s easy to find people writing about things you’re interested in from many perspectives, which is completely impossible in twenty second news clips, and far from usual in papers. The only thing that is wrong, is that Ben seems a touch blinded by his prejudices, which is always a mistake.

The Internet now gives any old joe too lazy to think for himself or consider the perspectives, feelings or rights of others the opportunity to sound off (and gullible people to believe their self-serving rhetoric) without being criticised by the hated shiny-arsed ‘elite’ academic types for being stupid, insensitive, wilfully ignorant and lazy.

Ben might be comfortable with being too lazy to think for himself, or consider the perspectives, but most people aren’t. Whether they do or not, and whether they’re successful when they do are other matters, but they generally seem to apply equally whether you’ve got a press pass or not.

Or, for that matter, whether you’re a member of the academy, who’re also quite capable of being ignorant, irrational or biassed. Towards the latter, from the book Australian Politics by Owen E. Hughes:

In Australia, the parties of the Right have received less academic attention than has the ALP. This may be because the majority of poltiical scientists and historians have been sympathetic to the ALP. As Henderson argues “what few books there are on the Liberal Party and its leaders tend to be written by those whose political sympathies are on the Left.” (37) He argues: (38)

The intellectual weakness of Australian conservatism is reflected in the Liberal Party. The consequences of the Liberal Party’s traditional indifference to ideas can be seen in the fact that is has had so few public supporters among the intelligentsia or chattering classes — except on the narrow matters of economics.


(37) Henderson, Menzies Child, p322.
(38) Henderson, p323.

This is, of course, assuming we’re going for “fairness, even-handedness and integrity”, rather than views filtered through an “elite agenda”. In any event, the opposition of the academy isn’t particularly interesting on any level. It’s certainly not able to impact any blogs, but whatever impact it already has on newspapers isn’t particularly effective either, given the ALP’s long years in the wilderness both before and after the Hawke government.

Like it or hate it, the conventional media, despite it’s flaws is probably here to stay, and like pet rocks and hula-hoops, the blog will die a quiet and lonely (if not slightly overdue) death, at least in it’s vain, hyped, hypertropied-ego form.

Ooo, look: a prediction. Ben thinks blogs will die. Presumably because regular news sources are better. But that’s not enough for blogs to die: for that, people not only have to not read them, but have to stop writing them. Ben’s already demonstrated that not being wildly popular isn’t enough reason for a blog to disappear: he’s maintained his own for three years, and well over two hundred entries already without any expectation of a high level of interest.

Anyway, Ben’s just reiterating Rush Limbaugh’s take on blogging.

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