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Learning to love the blog

Published February 27, 2005

What do these four guys have in common?

* Trent Lott, who lost his position as Republican leader in the U.S. Senate because he said America would be better off if segregationist Strom Thurmond had been elected president.

* Dan Rather, the CBS News anchor who relied on fairly clumsily faked documents questioning President Bush's service in the Air National Guard during Vietnam.

* Eason Jordan, a CNN vice president who resigned under criticism for alleging that U.S. soldiers had deliberately shot at journalists overseas.

* "Jeff Gannon," alias James Guckert, whose role as a White House "journalist" tossing friendly questions to President Bush came to a quick end after he was revealed to be a Republican operative who also had ties to gay male prostitution Web sites.

All four stories were ignored or at least not noticed by the traditional, national news outlets at first.

But all four were targeted for bloggers' outrage on the Internet, which kept the fire burning until the stories produced results.

All four subjects have portrayed themselves to some extent as the victims of a "vindictive" and "irresponsible" Internet culture, and so forth.

All four cases set the traditional, mainstream media (that's "MSM" in blog lingo) to wringing their hands about these pesky amateur bloggers.

Oh, and one more thing. In all four cases, there turned out to be sufficient fire beneath the smoke.

That's the point. Contrary to the recent media fretting, I really don't think there's much danger that wandering mobs of Internet attack dogs are going to run around destroying innocent victims at random.

None of these four famous blogger cases occurred in a vacuum. Trent Lott had played footsie with race-baiting plenty of times. Eason Jordan had been on the hot seat before.

As for Dan Rather's doe-eyed claims that he doesn't understand why he's a target: Well, maybe he should watch his own show. (The last CBS Evening News broadcast that I watched in its entirety, some years ago, contained this content: (1) Bush stinks. (2) Bush stinks. (3) Europeans think Bush stinks. (4) Here's a poor person suffering because Bush stinks. (5) Here's a courageous gay couple fighting ignorant prejudice who think that Bush stinks. (6) By the way, did we mention that Bush stinks? For the mirror image, of course, you can always turn to Fox News.)

As for the Republican poseur Jeff/James/Whatshisname - in general, one must choose whether to associate in life with political whores or the more traditional variety. But please, do not try to act all self-righteous and victimized if you get caught trying to cross over.

So, these were not cases of random blogger assassination. If the mere fact of having nasty things said about you on the Internet was career-destroying, how could Hillary Clinton, the Eleanor Roosevelt of her day in terms of being hated by the right, possibly remain in the U.S. Senate?

No. The emerging culture of the blogosphere presents the chance for us to revitalize two valuable, democratic functions.

First, bloggers have re-established a wide-open marketplace for public opinion, freed from the niceties and constraints of the mass market.

Whether calling attention to stained blue dresses or gay escort Web sites, bloggers freely put their gripes out there to see if they gain any currency in the marketplace. In a way, this brings our culture closer than ever to the First Amendment ideal of a true competition of ideas.

Second, bloggers are providing a healthy and overdue dose of skepticism about the so-called "mainstream" media that not even Rush Limbaugh (who, come to think of it, was an early version of a blogger) could whip up. It couldn't have come at a better time. Especially in the Rather and Gannon/Guckert cases, bloggers did the digging that revealed new information that left the traditional media far behind.

Face it: The White House press corps is not going to vet itself or play hardball with the White House, not while Scott McClellan is standing up there controlling their entire universe.

As for ol' Trent Lott saying something stupid - well, heck, anybody in Washington knows he did that kind of thing all the time. Let's all go to our next dinner party with each other.

Neither are the New York Times or USA Today, let alone a newspaper like the St. Petersburg Times, in the business of policing Dan Rather or CNN, even if they ought to be.

Hence the blog and bloggers, any one of which, theoretically, is viewable by the entire world.

I say these things, defending and welcoming the revolution, while fully aware that much of what passes for discourse on the Internet is either (1) inane, self-indulgent drivel, (2) the usual ad hominem insults or (3) scurrilous, made-up nonsense.

I keep getting the same Internet foolishness passed around over and over: Dan Quayle quotes repackaged as Al Gore quotes. Claims that Target donates only to gay charities, or that Tommy Hilfiger got kicked off Oprah for dissing black people, or that Oliver North warned a disbelieving Al Gore about Osama bin Laden back in the 1980s. The common thread to most of it is: Our party is great, the other party is evil.

Oh, yeah, and would you guys do me a favor? Quit sending me that speech over and over from the judge who sentenced shoe bomber Richard Reid ("Do you see that flag on the wall, Mr. Reid?") and asking me with a sneer why the Liberal Media kept it secret. We ran the story on Page 1A.

I write a newspaper column for a living, so the idea of a democratized and universal opinion-writing culture is of particular interest. What's the difference between me and somebody spouting off his or her opinions on a Web site? Less and less difference, except for the most important consideration of all - the actual worth of the content.

So to the extent that I try to find out actual facts, present them in an open-minded and smart way for smart readers, and those readers find something useful about it, then it still has a place in the market, despite my being the duped, corporate, MSM stooge that I am. To the extent I rehash conventional wisdom, refuse to rock the boat or put blind bias and ideology in the way of truth, the competition will have the force of the free market behind it.

This is not some naive, Pollyanna-ish hope that "the truth will out" just because every citizen gets the chance to act as his or her own opinion journal. The truth probably is going to have to work harder than ever in this new culture. But the mainstream media have to figure out how to embrace and engage the most democratic, populist movement among consumers of information in our nation's history.

I figure our democracy is up to it.

[Last modified February 27, 2005, 00:13:19]

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