Speech to the Bay Area Law School Technology Conference blogs panel, as prepared.
So I was asked to speak about bloggers and journalists — it seems like people are always finding an excuse to talk about this. In fact, the National Press Club had a panel on it just yesterday. Most of the discussion focuses on what bloggers do — is it trustworthy? is it right? — but I’d like to take a different tack. I’d like to discuss what journalists don’t.
Last summer, during the election campaign, I decided to take on a little project. Every day for a month I would read all the political articles in the New York Times and take notes on them on a blog. A number of things stood out and I thought I would discuss them. Keep in mind that this is the New York Times, widely recognized to be the most serious of newspapers. So everything that applies to them applies to an even greater extent to all the lesser newspapers, the evening news, the talking head shows, and so on.
The first was the extreme conservative bias. One day, they ran a front page story that claimed Kerry was, quote, like a caged hamster. Another, claiming, quote, life is like high school, decided to interview various Kerry classmates. So they got two quotes. On the right was the guy who thought Kerry “seem[ed] ruthless” and on the left was the one who insisted “hatred is too strong a word” for what his classmates felt. These are just fun examples — I found hundreds of these things in just a month. And many were on more serious issues as well.
The constant theme was that Times reporters would repeat Republican talking points and images and so on. Kerry was elitist, Kerry was a flip-flopper, the Kerry campaign was failing. One reporter even had his own cottage industry in stories of that last type. Adam Nagourney ran 22 consecutive stories claiming Democrats were worried about themselves.
But we shouldn’t forget the more important things as well. The Times was, of course, one of the major outlets for false claims that Iraq had WMDs. My understanding is that it’s a sort of cardinal rule in journalism that if you’re going to make a claim, especially a big, important front-page claim, you get two sources. Well, the Times didn’t do that on WMDs — they just printed whatever the administration said. And when the administration used their bogus reporting to go to war, the Times did its best to ignore the fact that the war was a blatant violation of international law.
In all these areas, the blogs bested the Times. Some tracked the spreading meme that Kerry was elitist, others pointed out that Bush wasn’t much of a down-home cowboy himself, still others carefully debunked each new right-wing myth. Blogs pointed to people like weapons inspector Scott Ritter, who correctly pointed out there were no WMDs, or the Iraqi defector who explained they had all been destroyed. Blogs 1, Times 0.
The second thing I noticed during my study was that reporters rarely pointed out Bush was lying, corrected his lies, or even conceded that an objective reality containing a truth existed. You don’t have to trust me on this one; I spoke to Washington Post campaign reporter Jim VandeHei about it when he visited Stanford. Some things are undoubtedly true, he said — he got very animated — but editors won’t let reporters print the facts. He wanted to do a piece where he compared Bush and Kerry’s stump speeches to see how many lies they contained, but editors just wouldn’t let him.
So instead you get the results so perfectly parodied by Paul Krugman, who commented that if the administration announced the Earth was flat, the lead story in the Times the next day would be “Shape of Earth: Views Differ”. In fact, we don’t really need to leave that sort of thing to the imagination anymore. The other month ABC ran a show which balanced people who claimed they had been abducted by aliens against respected doctors who explained that their experiences resulted from a condition called sleep paralysis. Who was right? ABC refused to say.
Even when facts are reported, they don’t seem to stick. Just last month, a Harris poll found that 47% of adults think Saddam helped plan 9/11 and 36% think Iraq had WMDs. But if the media sends the message that it’s unnecessary to check your beliefs against the facts, should we really be so surprised that so many Americans don’t?
Blogs suffer from no such compulsions. They’re happy to take tell you the facts and show you the evidence. They’re happy to tell you that some things are just wrong and often furious against those who dare to lie. The incredible blog Media Matters, for example, diligently tracks right-wing lies spread through the media, citing all the sources that prove them false.
But the most important thing, and the thing that nobody really seems to talk about, was how completely empty the Times’s coverage was. It was entirely focused on who the candidates were giving stump speeches to or what ads they were buying this week.
The only time an actual policy proposal was mentioned was deep inside a discussion of how a candidate played with a certain group. You know, ‘Kerry has had problems with the Teamsters, even though they support his health care plan’ or something. That was basically it. And this is supposed to be the high point of journalism! If the Times won’t talk about policy then no one will.
And if nobody talks about policy then nobody votes on the basis of it. A September 2004 Gallup poll found that only 10% of registered voters said that they voted based on the candidates, quote, agenda/ideas/platforms/goals — 6% for Bush, 13% for Kerry.
And it’s at this point that you really have to ask yourself: “is this really a democracy?” It’s the most contested election of out time, coverage is lavished on the topic, the nation is closely divided, and yet the media completely ignores the issues. There’s no policy debate. And if the media doesn’t report the policy proposals and the media doesn’t report the facts, then we’re right back to my first point: vague emotional claims about Kerry being a rich elitist flip-flopper, or, from the other side, Kerry was a brave soldier who blew stuff up in the Vietnam war.
This wasn’t your grand democratic election: The people didn’t get together and look at the facts and have a debate about issues. They didn’t look at facts and they didn’t discuss issues at all! They sat in their houses, watched a bunch of fuzzy TV commercials, and took in news coverage that recited the same vague themes. And then they voted based on which fuzzy image they liked the best. There’s a word for stuff like that. It’s not pretty, but I think it’s appropriate. It’s called propaganda. This was an election on the basis of propaganda.
And so I believe blogs are important insofar as they help us move away from this sorry spectacle and towards a real democracy. Blogs, of course, can help spread propaganda — and no doubt, most do — but they can also help stem it. Political blogs can help pull people into politics, tell them things they wouldn’t otherwise hear, and lead them to organize their own projects — like building support for Howard Dean or trying to save social security.
One of the most important things I think blogs do, though, is teach people. The media, as I’ve noted, is supremely unintelligent. But I don’t think the people of this country are. And one of the most striking things about blogs to me is how they almost never talk down to their readership. Indeed most seem to think higher of their readership than they do themselves.
Atrios doesn’t hesitate before explaining some piece of economics that the Washington Post finds too complex. Tim Lambert will teach you the statistical theory you need to understand why some right-wing claim is wrong. And Brad DeLong has taught me more about what it’s like to be an economics guy in the government than I got from Paul O’Neill’s book.
The media isn’t going to come save from this nightmare. But maybe blogs can. Or at least they can help. The more people learn, the smarter they become. The smarter they become, the more they understand the way the world really works. The more they understand, the more they can do to fix things. And that is the truly important goal. Thank you.
So, what I did was I took the above speech, bolded the key words and numbers, and printed it out. Then I gave it mostly from memory, occasionally looking down to get the next bolded word or a particularly well-worded phrase. It worked really well, I think.
The speech touched quite a nerve, as I hoped. My two conservative co-panelists (Zack Rosen failed to show) immediately demanded a chance to respond and then cut off my rebuttals. One of them (Mike) started insisting there was no such thing as objective truth at which point I cut in and said ‘Well, I can see why Republicans would want to deny that truth exists since it often cuts against them!’ which was hailed as the best line of the night.
After the talk I got a lot of compliments and a guest blogger for Daily Kos said he’d talk to Markos about getting me an occasional spot on Daily Kos, which is something like the liberal blogger equivalent of a regular gig on the Tonight Show. So I think it went well. :-)
posted April 10, 2005 07:57 AM (Politics) (20 comments) #
Best thing I’ve yet read about blogging vs. conventional journalism in the election. Really!
Thank you for writing it.
Just remember the pitfall that people have a tendency stick to the blogs they agree with and dismiss others.
Which is why you should tour the country with this speech :)
posted by Daniel Øhrgaard at April 10, 2005 11:29 AM #
Well, here’s someone who loves the sound of their own voice.
posted by box turtle at April 10, 2005 12:01 PM #
thanks for posting this. Sorry that I could stay for your panel, my ride wanted to leave and I would then have to caltrain->BART back to the Easy Bay.
posted by joe at April 10, 2005 01:33 PM #
Well written. However, I feel the problem is between the lines of your speech. I fear a tautology:
“And so I believe blogs are important insofar as they help us move away from this sorry spectacle and towards a real democracy. Blogs, of course, can help spread propaganda — and no doubt, most do — but they can also help stem it. Political blogs can help pull people into politics, tell them things they wouldn’t otherwise hear, and lead them to organize their own projects — like building support for Howard Dean or trying to save social security.”
I’m not saying that there is no objective truth, but when it comes to blogs, one man’s propaganda is another man’s truth. You could take the everything but the last paragraph, and swap the line about dean and SS for ousting Dan Rather and supporting the Shindlers and suddenly you would be 1) right and 2) right.
I personally think blogs are important not so much for finding the truth, but because enough people are naturally contrary and reactionary, and if you give them a voice they will contradict the media. Whether or not they present facts is secondary, the voicing of dissent, and then the resulting tests of the dissent, that is key. If the dissent is true, then that’s that. But if the dissent proves false, well, that only bolsters the case of the media. Gadfly and all that.
posted by Dan Steingart at April 10, 2005 02:13 PM #
In the same vein as Dan above, are right-wing blogs a good thing?
In your talk, you explicitly mention ‘right-wing’ three times in a negative light. Does ‘right-wing’ by definition equal bad?
posted by q-cup kid at April 10, 2005 02:59 PM #
Yes, Aaron, as someone who was on that panel (I was moderator) I can attest to your readers that you were a huge hit in terms of both content and delivery. I just got back from the trip to my base in San Diego and I’m going to post my modest remarks and then do a post on the overall sessions, using some of my notes. I am very tempted to just post your comments above with a link, but I’ll probably just put a link next to it with a MUST READ comment. Anyway, you were indeed a huge hit.
posted by Joe Gandelman at April 10, 2005 06:02 PM #
Be careful, Aaron. You’re about to become a celebrity. Just remember that people love celebrities not because what they say is true, but because they’re either a) phrasing what people already believe in a cool way or b) taking them a very small step past what they already believe to learn something new.
I know you have a huge commitment to substance. Just remember that the masses do not, either on the left or on the right (though on the left, they tolerate it a little better). Be careful, be true, and don’t let yourself become disillusioned with truth becuase people don’t appreciate it. Like programming, the trick is to get the product in front of the user in a form that he can understand, interpret, and use. Good luck! (and get those allergies checked out!)
posted by theorajones at April 10, 2005 08:54 PM #
I’m afraid I have to agree with theorajones - “phrasing what people already believe in a cool way”.
Shorter speech: WE’RE SO COOL!
Most journalists do a very poor job about facts, because, contrary to myth, facts are really not all that important to journalism overall. But blogs haven’t repealed human nature. Many of the most popular blogs (many, not all) are the equivalent of talk-radio, and even worse than journalists.
It’s cherry-picking to take the blogs of experts, writing to fairly small, very elite, audience, and compare that to mass media. The expert’s blogs are better compared to small-circulation magazines or topical newsletters.
posted by Seth Finkelstein at April 12, 2005 07:52 AM #
I saw this posted on AlterNet and thought this was really great - I’m constantly trying to explain to many of my liberal friends what a sewer The Times (and other media outlets) is. Thanks!
And to those who are afraid that some sort of “cult of personality” is going to develop around you… people give respect to those who speak the truth. And there’s nothing wrong with that. We need more people like that out there - props to people like you who are meeting that need.
posted by Milly at April 12, 2005 10:09 AM #
Excellent speech, Aaron!
posted by Helga Fremlin at April 12, 2005 05:23 PM #
Response to Seth:
First, I talked about blogs because it was a blogging panel, but the point I was trying to make was that any criticisms of blogs apply in stronger form to journalists. I could probably have restructured this to be more clear, but I wrote the speech the night before and I wanted to get some sleep. Second, I can’t stand it when people justify bad things by saying that they’re human nature. We know hardly anything about human nature so such claims are simply vacuous apologetics.
The fundamental question Seth raises, however, is how one judges a medium. Should one compare the average blog with the average newspaper? The best blog with the best newspaper? The most popular? Hopefully it’s clear why such an argument is silly. Instead, in my talk I use the metric of what blogs contribute to society, democracy in particular. If a few blogs help a few people take action to fix things, then that outweighs all the propaganda which gets people to do nothing.
posted by Aaron Swartz at April 13, 2005 06:41 PM #
“… that any criticisms of blogs apply in stronger form to journalists”
I am thoroughly unconvinced. In fact, if anything, it seems to me that the reverse is more likely to be true.
Critically, there’s an identical lack of good mechanisms for insuring that information which is true but unpopular, wins out over that which is untrue but popular.
What I meant by “human nature” was a shorthand way of referring to the well-known psychological problems with reasoning: The tendency to prefer information that reinforces your worldview, and to discount information that makes you uncomfortable. To not examine assumptions. To pass things on without fact-checking.
These are all on exhibition every day in blogs, most especially some popular ones (such reasoning errors are even their business!).
I don’t mean to be harsh on you personally. But the topic is something of a pet peeve of mine.
There’s a few errors that evangelists tend to make. One of them is roughly:
“If I, smart person who likes to read a lot, can more easily find the information I like, then blogs are better for society”.
But society is a lot more than the intellectuals. In fact, it’s not at all clear that the wonks matter all that much overall to politics. Certainly not so much that advances in wonkery are revolutionary to democracy.
Related, there’s the idea :
“If in my entire universe, the right answer is somewhere, anywhere, then that’s a win for my side.”
But that is a bad comparison, because it’s not existence which matters, but prevalence (evangelist: “Anyone in the world could read the accurate blog, so I’ll score it as prevailing everywhere”)
This is getting long. Simple:
How do you know you are right, rather than you think you’re right, and many people are cheerleading with you because it makes them feel superior to do so? If you were wrong, what would convince you of that? (as in “I tried this, I thought it was so, but when I examined it in detail, did the experiment, went through the numbers, I found it didn’t work out”)
posted by Seth Finkelstein at April 13, 2005 11:27 PM #
Hey, Aaron. Sorry I couldn’t make the panel, but thanks for participating. I’ve heard great things about it. ; )
posted by Jamie Calloway at April 14, 2005 02:06 PM #
truht to power !
keep up the good work !!!
posted by ~kosisok~ at April 16, 2005 01:56 PM #
Whoa, man. As someone who was there — and as someone who asked a question you never really did (or could) answer — I believe the phrase for what Krempasky did to you is rendered by the kids as PWN3D. Hopefully the recording of the panel will be posted soon so folks can judge for themselves — and see what a total lie your assertion that Krempasky denied the existence of objective truth is.
posted by Joshua Trevino at April 17, 2005 05:13 PM #
Didn’t you already know everything you wrote in that speech before you ever embarked on your investigation into the NYT?
What possessed you to investigate something that obvious?
posted by Trevor Hill at April 18, 2005 03:11 AM #
I’m actually not sure about the chronology of when I knew what — part of it is probably that I’ve never read the news — but I have to say there’s a huge difference between knowing something because you read it in a reliable book or saw a study or something and actually doing the study yourself. Until you demonstrate to yourself that these things are so blatantly real, it’s possible to persuade yourself that their results of selection bias or something.
However, I did do the study for other reasons, but it ended up not working out.
posted by Aaron Swartz at April 18, 2005 04:47 PM #
“Hopefully the recording of the panel will be posted soon so folks can judge for themselves …”
I really shouldn’t do this, but it seems that EITHER WAY, we have a small case study. You can’t both be right. How many people are going to look for themselves? Even if they did, what’s the number compared to the amount of people who will hear a wrong characterization of it? What’s the incentive for the wrong person to admit it, rather than be in denial, or even brazen it out for the partisans who want to believe him?
While I believe objective truth exists, existence is a far cry from application.
posted by Seth Finkelstein at April 19, 2005 04:49 AM #
Blogs - well, the majority - don’t rely on advertisers.
‘MSM’ - well, the majority - does.
posted by Robert Brook at April 22, 2005 08:32 AM #
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