Joseph Rago, an editorial assistant for the Wall Street Journal has just debuted a smashing critique of blogs and bloggers on Opinion Journal, the Wall Street Journal’s editorial section. Entitled “The Blog Mob”, Mr. Rago, who was previously the editor-in-chief for the Dartmouth Review (an in-house publication for Dartmouth College, his alma mater), prefaces his article with Joseph Conrad’s quote about newspapers themselves “written by fools to be read by imbeciles”, but intones that this now applies to the very blogs which criticize newspapers - the kind for sale at my local convenience store - the type I don’t buy, or read because they “are predictable” and thus, “excruciatingly boring” - despite both of those terms used by Mr. Rago to refer to political blogs on the internet.

Of course, I was surprised to see that the WSJ, a publication I respect far more highly than most newspapers, would allow such drivel to be published. As you read Mr. Rago’s piece, you can sort of sense him falling into a well, scraping and clawing at any meager plant life on the walls, trying to keep himself from falling further. You can most certainly sense his knowledge that the day of “MSM’s” (mainstream media’s) dominance over information is waning.

While he makes a few valid points, mostly about the quality of most blogs, the whole of his article can only be taken as a cheap shot. He mostly criticizes political blogs - the ones that most directly threaten his salary - but he also makes a big deal out of “right now opinion” writing on blogs. Which struck me as odd. How many years have I read opinions of people like Mr. Rago in my newspapers? Was there ever any alternate way to receive an opinion from someone who might know what is going on - or have a more in-depth background than me? Not before the internet, and rarely before blogging became popular. Before, if I didn’t like or agree with the editorial staff at the Wall Street Journal, or the New York Times, or the Denver Post, then I’d have to pretty much wait for the book - a book from someone on the inside who told all. Can you imagine events like the O.J. Simpson trial prior to blogs? What about the first trip to the moon? Or the attempted assassination of Reagan? The editorial boards in America have literally owned this information for over a century. Unless you count facial expressions of network anchors as they “report” the news (the curled lips, the flaccid eyelids, the nasal intonations), there was no easy way to get other opinions.

But count Mr. Rago as a scholar entrenched in the past. Many contributors to our culture now have blogs - both personal and political. CEO’s of corporations, wanna-be Matt Drudge’s, authors, movie makers, artists, and just normal folks - like me - have blogs that they update at their own timing and frequency - often stating their opinion. And those opinions are usually formed in their own mind, not with a boardroom of editorial staff whose primary goal, least we all forget, is to sell newspapers (or magazines as in the case of Time, Newsweek, and U.S. Snooze and World Distort). What bugs Mr. Rago deep down seems to be that I can click a button in my bedroom now, turning on my computer, and within a minute be reading something about a news story that might be at odds with what he and his colleagues chose to publish. Moreover, it is that knowledge which pushes them to work harder, making sure any solid lead doesn’t get dropped (or scooped), making sure their facts are 100% correct - else there is a reasonable chance they’ll be broadcast to the world. No longer is the gadfly relegated to “letters to the editor” with hopes that a new staff clerk accidentally will publish their “alternative view”. With a few keystrokes, his letter can be published to the world. And it is up to the world to determine whether it is relevant, interesting, thought-provoking, or laughable - and it is no longer up to Mr. Rago and his colleagues.

That knowledge, should however, be a spur that promotes excellence in journalism. Many trades have had strict oversight for many years, but not journalism. In fact, even thought the WSJ has been an overseer itself (for instance, helping to break the story of Enron), Mr. Rago apparently feels there shouldn’t be oversight of his newspaper from uncontrollable sources. Letters to the Editor can be controlled (and thrown away). Gadflies at City Hall can be made to look like fools. But, on the internet, the playing field is equaled - somewhat. Newspapers still have a huge volume of resources unavailable to most bloggers. They have giant budgets, sharp web developers, and print production designers. They have copy editors, staff editors, assistant editors, chief editors, and probably a few editors sitting around “just in case”. And they have well-trained writers. So, they have every advantage - and yet, they continue to lose ground. I can only assume one possible explanation for it is when they hire distinguished fellows like Mr. Rago, who unfortunately wish to spend their remaining years in journalism decrying the populist view of blogging - rather than working hard to accomplish something great for the paper. It hardly seems fitting for the WSJ to allow such trifling material in its pages - an almost “me too” kind of article by MSM that says, “Hey, maybe blogs are unreliable, disreputable, and can’t be trusted”. Gee, is that news? And yet, blogs continue to grow by such wild leaps that the word “grow” is hardly a fitting verb to describe the process. Worse (for newspapers at least), is the fact that readership of blogs is now starting to accelerate at a tremendous rate.

I used to read about 2-3 blogs a month - until I became a blogger. I now read over 100 blogs a month - some of which post multiple times each day. That’s a lot of information - and although I don’t count any of it as wholly reliable, I was never the “imbecile” who counted my local newspaper as wholly reliable either. Every source is determined to be trustworthy, partially or wholly, by one person - me. I place the Bible at a very high rank - I place Florida Today (my local Gannet rag) at a very low rank. I place Rush Limbaugh, the radio talk show host, at a pretty high rank. I place NPR at a fairly high rank - above medium anyway. And so on and so forth. This is no different from anyone else - whether they realize it or not. We are all making determinations about value, trust, insight, and candor whenever we receive information from a source - be it the MSM, our local radio station, The Economist, Wired Magazine, or a friend or neighbor. Why Mr. Rago feels that this system needs some kind of “checks and balances”, like a government, is beyond me. Of course, the implication is that only certain people are qualified to be the checkers and balancers, which, if I’ve understood Mr. Rago, I may rightfully infer is not me. Or us. Or a lot of people. There is a certain aire in Mr. Rago’s writing which will remind you of the determination of the popes to stop the printing of the Bible, or the rantings of a certain mad King in England who felt the colonists in America could never control what they had unleashed. And yet, here we are.

Blogs, like families, are self-governing. We really don’t need an outside system. The important ones rise - the inconsequential ones fall. And the beauty of blogs is that even the inconsequential ones can still be read by the few who found them of interest. No tight budgets of network television are required to constantly push the top sellers outward while silently killing off the shows with audience shares of 200,000 and less. Even the strange shows that I would have no interest in (say.. LonelyGirl15) are entitled to their audience as long as their publishers feel fit to produce them. And blogs, like all writing, can not be held captive to anyone but the writers alone. That is how it should be.

Technorati : WSJ, bloggers, blogging, media

Posted in: Blogging