Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Quality Control

In his generally accurate critique of political blogs in today's Wall Street Journal (free for all!), Joseph Rago passes on the standard MSM anti-blog canards---No editors! No gatekeepers!--and focuses on an area where many political blogs are ripe for ripping:

More success is met in purveying opinion and comment. Some critics reproach the blogs for the coarsening and increasing volatility of political life. Blogs, they say, tend to disinhibit. Maybe so. But politics weren't much rarefied when Andrew Jackson was president, either. The larger problem with blogs, it seems to me, is quality. Most of them are pretty awful. Many, even some with large followings, are downright appalling.

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...

Hard to argue with those sentiments. As with most things, quantity does not equal quality and, as Rago mentions, neither does traffic.

The blogs must be timely if they are to influence politics. This element--here's my opinion--is necessarily modified and partly determined by the right now. Instant response, with not even a day of delay, impairs rigor. It is also a coagulant for orthodoxies. We rarely encounter sustained or systematic blog thought--instead, panics and manias; endless rehearsings of arguments put forward elsewhere; and a tendency to substitute ideology for cognition. The participatory Internet, in combination with the hyperlink, which allows sites to interrelate, appears to encourage mobs and mob behavior.

Amen to that. The one piece of advice I always offer to new bloggers is to not write about the same things that the twenty million bloggers who came before you already are. Sometimes it's unavoidable, and there are obviously subjects that nearly every one is going to weigh in on, but if all you're doing is giving your opinion on the top three or four news stories of the day, it's very unlikely that you're going to offer readers anything they can't get somewhere else from someone who can do it better than you.

Rago also points out that the problems with blogs span the political spectrum.

Because political blogs are predictable, they are excruciatingly boring. More acutely, they promote intellectual disingenuousness, with every constituency hostage to its assumptions and the party line. Thus the right-leaning blogs exhaustively pursue second-order distractions--John Kerry always providing useful material--while leaving underexamined more fundamental issues, say, Iraq. Conservatives have long taken it as self-evident that the press unfavorably distorts the war, which may be the case; but today that country is a vastation, and the unified field theory of media bias has not been altered one jot.

Leftward fatuities too are easily found: The fatuity matters more than the politics. If the blogs have enthusiastically endorsed Joseph Conrad's judgment of newspapering--"written by fools to be read by imbeciles"--they have also demonstrated a remarkable ecumenicalism in filling out that same role themselves.