Saturday, September 11, 2004

What's the Font, Kenneth?

A while back, I attempted to fisk a blog post by Tom Humphrey, a newspaper editor from Tennessee. I wasn't the only one. If you'll follow the links to other blogs in my post, the trackback, or the link to Tom's blog where the comments are, you'll see that quite a few of us tore in to ol' Tommie.

While there was plenty to go on in his post, the main reason bloggers went after Mr. Humphrey was due to a comment in his post:

After all, bloggers, I am instructed, do not have to follow those iron clad rules of attribution, fact-checking, logic and such.

Nice, huh? Thanks a lot, Tom. What's sad is, in recent days I've heard the same comments about bloggers AGAIN, thanks to the Memogate controversy.

Dan Rather called us "rumor mills" and "partisan political operatives" (pot and kettle much, Danny Boy?). Last night watching MSNBC, I heard a guest on Scarborough Country accuse bloggers of being rumor mongers, and of not being subject to fact checking.

Let's address quickly the fact that this is an unabashed ad hominem, and then move on. The person that made this comment could not refute the forgery allegations, could not lend any expertise to the discussion of the documents, so they had to assail the bloggers instead. Because we're rumor mongers, then anything we say must therefore be nothing but rumor, with no relevance or basis in fact. Pure ad hominem. As unsophisticated as some people think it is to cite her, I have to say, Ann Coulter was right when she wrote Slander.

Well, I have news for them. If anything, blogs are more closely scrutinized than Mainstream Media sources. Go back to my post on Tom Humphrey. In criticizing him, I made some spelling and grammatical errors myself, and a reader caught me and called me on it. Admittedly, it took a while, but I have a readership of what, 100 people a day or so? I'm nothing. If one of the heavy hitters (The top 100 or so on the TTLB ecosystem) make a mistake, how quickly do they get called on it. If not in their comment sections, you can BET other blogs, especially those of opposing political views, will call them on it.

That's a significant factor in the checks and balances present on the web, among blogs, as opposed to those in the MSM. Let's look specifically at fact checking.

Any time we are presented with an argument and with evidence for a position on any issue, our own opinion and feelings on that issue cloud our judgment of the evidence. That is human nature. Our desire influences our inclination, that is, the more we want something to be true, the more apt we are to believe it. It takes a great deal of intellectual courage to say, "I wish it were thus, but alas, it is not." Some people are more able to do it than others.

We were taught for generations that among those best able to do this were journalists. The dispassionate, impartial observer and reporter who could set aside personal feelings to "Just tell it like it is." But this belief itself was in great part based on our desire to believe. The reality was, sadly, more and more different all the time. Journalists are as fallible as we are. If someone is presented with a story that fits their perception and beliefs and desires, they are going to be more inclined to believe it. They're supposed to exercise caution, but sometimes it can be too tempting to pass up. That's why fact-checking, or some sort of independent review, is important. In the MSM, that's supposed to be the job of fact checkers, editors, and producers. In the blogosphere, it's your readers themselves (who also serve that function for the MSM, but to a lesser degree -- more on that in a bit), and your fellow bloggers.

The problem that the MSM runs into is that over the years, they have grown pretty close to homogeneous in their politics and beliefs. That means that the overseers, the editors, producers, and fact checkers, tend to have the same bias as the reporters, and thus inclined to err in favor of the same view that the reporters do. Whereas in the blogosphere, there are plenty of readers and fellow bloggers who disagree with you on any give topic, and they'll be more than happy to pick at and look as deeply as possible into the claims you present.

Furthermore, as I mentioned, the greater a blogs readership, the more likely and the more quickly will occur an "AHA!" if the blogger missteps. That means the most popular bloggers are held most accountable. In theory, it should be the same in the MSM, but alas, as a journalist becomes more famous, more influential, and more highly regarded, they develop clout that allows them protection from too close a scrutiny. Their mistakes tend to be glossed over and ignored by their peers and superiors, and until recently, the public had little recourse to address their errors. How many letters written to an editor actually get published? And if they don't how else will you get the word out? Go to a cometing journalist? It was doubtful you'd get the time of day unless the charge was highly significant and incontrovertable, and even then it was not guaranteed any attention. Out of professional regard, mutually held opinions, and self-preservation, journalists rarely attack their own. It happens, but not often.

The internet and blogs changed that. Now you have an outlet. Now everyone can have a voice. If that voice is used poorly, you will be ignored, mocked, and refuted. But while it may be small at first, if what your new internet voice has to say is right, and significant, and well said, it will get heard. And listened to. And repeated. And some day, like this week, it may just drown out the old, authoritarian voices of the old media.

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